Bart is about to turn thirteen. He’s named after Bart Simpson, because it seems his mother wanted him to be tough and clever and able to handle himself. This is also why she’s signed him up for boxing lessons. He dutifully goes to practise several times a week, and one of these days, he may actually start hitting. His boxing coach suggests he may want to try out for some other sport, which Bart can understand, as except for having a pretty good guard, Bart is pretty dreadful at boxing. He refuses to give up, however.
What Bart is actually rather excellent at is opera singing. The downside is that he can only sing well without an audience. This means he mostly sings locked in his tiny bathroom, since Bart lives alone with his morbidly obese, mostly unemployed mother (who is clearly an alcoholic) in a tiny one-room flat, where privacy isn’t easy to come by. Bart and his mother live in an old building where the hallway floors are covered in old rubbish, broken syringes and other unpleasant things that make it very clear that Bart can never actually make any close friends, because God forbid one of them ever wanted to come round to his after school one day. He’s not exactly a bullying victim, but pretty firmly on one of the lower rungs of the social ladder.
Bart’s life takes a turn for the more dramatic when Ada, the pretty, popular and persistent girl he sits next to at school (it’s not that she likes Bart THAT way, she has a boyfriend in another town, besides, she’s so well-liked and popular their differing social statuses pretty much span a galaxy) figures out that not only does Bart enjoy listening to opera, but he sings it as well. Since he’s unable to sing in front of others, he makes her a recording, but forgets to make her promise not to share it with anyone else. It turns out that Ada is pretty bad at keeping secrets. First, she shares the recording with the entire class, and Bart’s enthusiastic teacher won’t stop nagging until he agrees to perform at the end of year school performance. Then, she unexpectedly shows up on his doorstep and stays for dinner. Sadly, the next day, most of the school knows that Bart lives in a terrible wreck of a building and his mother is an overweight shut-in.
Then, on the very day he turns thirteen, Bart wakes to find his grandmother bearing sad news. His mother, who went out the evening before, has been hospitalised and needs an operation to get better. His grandmother will have to stay with him until his mother recovers. It’s at this point Bart break down and tells his grandmother the truth (which she’s been pretty aware of for a long time) about his rather dismal living situation, and having unburdened himself, immediately feels like things might actually start looking up. Ada keeps wanting to spend time with him, trying to figure out ways to help him overcome his stage fright (including managing to sneak him into the hotel room of his music idol, Bryn Terfel, when the opera singer is in Oslo about to perform). Bart may even have managed to track down the man who might be his father, after all these years.
This is a book my colleagues and I decided to read out loud to our eighth graders this term. I have read other books by Arne Svingen, a hugely popular YA and middle grade Norwegian author before, but this book is by far my favourite.
Full review on my blog.