There was something of homework about this novel. I read it soon after A Scandal by Fredrik Backman, as I wanted to see how current novelists are approaching sport as the backdrop to fiction. Seeing as how my own novel, The First Sunday in September, to be published by Mercier Press in August, attempts just that.
More about Backman/A Scandal in a later blog, but Raisin’s approach and balance of sport and life was, I thought, very impressive. It probably helps that I’m interested in soccer/football, used to play a bit myself and I read a lot about, and watch a lot of professional football in the UK. I’ve been a Manchester United supporter since 1968.
For the reader with no interest, or even antipathy to sport/football, I guess it might be more of a struggle – even though it shouldn’t be. If the profession of the protagonist was, for example, a coalminer or soldier (and most people aren’t interested in coalmining or soldiering) would that make a difference? No, it wouldn’t. Or shouldn’t. And yet it does.
The novel, giving nothing away really, tells the story of how a young professional footballer in the UK, Tom Pearman, who has been ‘sent down’ to a club in a lesser division, is trying to come to term with being gay – especially in such a macho and viciously homophobic world.
There are three points of view, which helps to break up the novel I think and give some variety and a rest from Tom’s struggles. The other stories (closely intertwined) are those of another, leading senior player, Easter, and his put-upon wife, Leah.
Tom starts a relationship with the club’s groundskeeper, Liam, a young ‘failed’ footballer himself and his sense of shame, yearning and anxiety form the triad of the story’s core.
Raisin does have descriptions of the football, but it’s not at the heart of the story, really – as it cannot be. The novel is about people, their losses, hopes and struggles. Novels have to be that, or they’re nothing. The football is the backdrop and it’s real, but it doesn’t dominate. The book is not about football. Ultimately it’s about a difficult coming out by a young man.
The writing is taut and impressive. The story flows, with a major twist about two third’s through creating a huge build-up of tension. Tom’s existential angst is real and told with compassion – as are the difficulties of Easter (a much less sympathetic character, despite a double leg break) and Leah (juggling a distant husband, a demanding child and her attempts to forge her own life). Some very good use of new media – in this case a club chat forum.
The love story between Tom and Liam is tender and awkward and very moving. How Tom deals with it later, after the storyline twist, is very real and true – or so it seemed to me. As is the loving relationship with his family, and his shame, especially in the context of his father.
The ending is climactic and brilliantly soaring. I loved it.
Sport is so embedded in so many people’s lives, but it’s rarely written about in fiction – with some notable exceptions that I’ll return to (including Backman’s A Scandal (ice hockey), Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (cricket – in New York!), Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (baseball) and three of our own John McGahern’s short stories (gaelic football)).
If you ever wondered why there isn’t more sport in fiction (and I often do) read this extract from an interview Raisin did with the Guardian (full piece here):
Raisin’s first two novels were published by Penguin, but here too A Natural brought about a departure. He and Penguin “saw the book slightly differently”. The novel went on submission, to be bought by Jonathan Cape, and “even in conversations with publishers who saw the book, and some of them turned it down on the grounds that – they were quite upfront about saying this – ‘We don’t know how to sell it to women because it’s about football, but at the same time we don’t know how we sell it to football supporters because it’s got gay in it.’ And that’s incredible,” he says. “Well, it’s not incredible at all. It feels completely unsurprising. But I’m interested in how the book is received because it’s not a book for men, it’s not a book for football supporters, it’s a book for readers. You can write fiction that is searching and empathetically complicated about any subject.” He is drawn to situations – and this is the only time he sounds vehement – with a “dead crust of opinion around them”.
Not incredible at all, completely unsurprising, as Ross Raisin says, which is one of the reasons I’m so grateful to Mercier Press for taking my novel on.