Break The Fall by Jennifer Iacopelli

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This was published in February 2020 but set during the Tokyo Olympics.  Now, I usually only read books which are, as my blog name suggests, “set in the past” (this one was for a Facebook group reading challenge).  Setting a book only a few months into the future wouldn’t normally be much of an issue, but, of course, in this case it was – and the author couldn’t possibly have known what lay around the corner, any more than the rest of us could.  These are the Olympics which we should have had.  For a start, they’re in 2020.  And the events take place in front of capacity crowds, with the athletes’ loved ones there to share the moments with them, with medals being hung around the winners’ necks by VIPs and with team-mates hugging each other in celebration or consolation.

Reading all that was rather strange.  However, it shouldn’t detract from the actual plot, which was about a team of young female American gymnasts getting ready to head for the Olympics, only for it to emerge that their male coach had been abusing two of them and that he’d been abusing other girls, too frightened to speak out, over a period of many years.  Obviously everyone will be aware that this is based on real events within US gymnastics, with over 350 young women affected.

It’s a challenging topic for a book for a teenagers, but the author’s handled it very well.  The protagonist, Audrey, is not one of those affected, but learns that she was almost certainly going to be the abuser’s next target.  So we’re slightly removed from what’s happened, and there are no actual scenes of abuse being perpetrated, but no words are minced and it’s made very clear what’s gone on.

Tied in with this is another main plotline, that, at just 16, our girl Audrey (funny how names come back into fashion – no-one under 50 was called Audrey when I was a kid) is being forced to retire due to a chronic back injury.  And, because it is a book for teenagers, there’s a romance, and there’s a lot of emphasis on the girls in the team falling out but then being reunited and pulling together.

It’s really very good.

It is a difficult subject, though.   BBC 1 showed a three part series earlier this year about child abuse in British football in the 1970s and 1980s.  It struck very close to home, with local lads like Paul Stewart and David White talking about what had happened to them.  How many other sports have been affected by this?   A review into safeguarding in professional tennis has just been introduced.  And, of course, it’s not just sport.  Over the last few years, there’s been one child abuse scandal after another.  It’s horrific, and it was brave of the author to cover this subject in her book.

We start off with the trials.  Then it’s announced that one of the qualifiers has failed a drugs test.  Everyone’s stunned.  And then it turns out that the coach had been abusing her, she’d told him that she was going to the authorities, and he’d tampered with her test results in an attempt to discredit her.  And the other coaches went along with the faked test results.  Later, it turns out that he’d been abusing another member of the team too.  And others come forward.

At the Olympics, the shock of it all, and the fact that the team’s initially divided over whom they believe, means that, despite being favourites, they fail to win a medal in the team event.  But Audrey pulls them all together, and they succeed in the individual events.  And all the other competitors, and everyone in the crowd, shows that they believe the girls who’ve come forward, and that they support them.   It’s a bit too “tidy”, but, OK, it is a novel.

I’m not an expert in gymnastics, but the author goes into a lot of detail and it does all seem to be pretty accurate.  And so is everything she says about top level sport in general – the physical and emotional pain involved, as well as the great rewards.  Audrey will be retiring at just 16.  She will probably have issues with her back for the rest of her life.  And there are questions over whether or not the injury could have been prevented had the coaches cared a bit more.  And, after all those years of work, one mistake, or one bit of bad luck, and dreams could be shattered.  I watch a lot of sport.  I’ve seen so many ups and downs.  I can’t even imagine what it must be like for the athletes themselves.

Random point.  How long have leotards been referred to as “leos”?!  Or is this an American thing?  And, just to add to the confusion, Audrey’s boyfriend is called Leo!

One more thing.  The book tries really hard to be diverse.  Audrey is half-Korean.  Of the other three girls in the main team, one is white, one is black and one is Hispanic.  Kudos to the author for doing that, but … it gets a bit much when, say, we’re introduced to their new coach and immediately told that she’s “a white woman”, etc.  I don’t know how you’re supposed to show that you’re including characters of different ethnicities, except in cases where it’s clear from their names, without actually saying so, but it felt a bit clunky sometimes.

This is a very 21st century “young adult” novel.  Incidentally, don’t think the term “young adult” even existed when I was in the age group for which the book’s aimed.   And, as I’ve said, it’s really very good.