The Penalty area by Alain Gillot (translated by Howard Curtis)

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A heart-warming novel about overcoming adversity, making human connections, and football. Vincent once had a shot at becoming a professional soccer player but a career-ending knee injury put an end to his dreams. A tough kid from a poor family, he has become an emotionally cut-off man with frustrated hopes and limited options. He finds himself coaching an under-16 soccer club in an attempt to keep alive his only passion in life. The team he coaches is little more than a roster of hot- headed boys, none of whom understands the on-field chemistry needed to win. Simply put, they aren’t of a championship calibre. When his unemployed sister Madeleine, a single mother, dumps her thirteen-year-old son on him, Vincent panics. With no clue how to take care of a teenager, he brings his nephew to practice and eventually throws him into the scrimmage. It’s then that Vincent notices there’s something strange about Le?onard. He has a preternatural ability for anticipating each striker’s intentions, making him a remarkably talented goalkeeper. But Le?onard looks detached, absent, lost. Le?onard has undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome. What is equally clear is that, with Le?onard’s abilities as a goalkeeper, Vincent’s ragtag team has a chance to reach the finals. For that to happen, for the team to find a reason to rally behind this strange kid from Paris, Vincent will have to let down his guard and open his heart for the first time ever.

Please be aware that this review may contain partial spoilers in order to go into more detail than I usually do. In case you don’t want to read those, I’ve put them behind a read more link, and the TL;DR summary of the review is that I wouldn’t describe this book as heartwarming or engaging, but it’s an interesting examination of a fractured family and potential routes to recovery. The description of Asperger’s sydrome is perfunctory and stereotypical, but plausible (as long as we recognise that it’s the description of one person’s presentation, not all of them) and Le?onard is the character I’d very much like to have seen more of. Note I am NOT describing anyone having a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome as being damaged/ fractured or broken, but I think pretty much all the other characters in this book are one or other of those things. With that said, I did really enjoy the book, in a kind of “sigh of relief yay the end is better than the beginning things are looking up” way.

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