jump to navigation

Book review: A Natural by Ross Raisin 24/08/2017

Posted by Ian Grant in Thoughts about things.
trackback

Aside from the obvious fact that you really couldn’t make some of it up, there are myriad problems with making football the subject of fiction. Sitting at the top of the myriad – if myriads have tops – is that football in many respects already exists in the realms of the fictional. We daydream about it, we romanticise it even as it remorselessly exploits us in return; it lives and breathes very happily in our imaginations without any help from a well-meaning author or screenwriter. The advent of elaborately realistic video games, or whatever the kids call them nowadays, means that you can easily act out your fantasies of scoring a last-minute winner at Wembley in the comfort of your living room. So, really, what’s the point?

Ross Raisin’s recently published novel “A Natural” has a truly dreadful title. It also has a point. In telling the story of Tom Pearman, graduate of a Premier League academy rebuilding his career at a small League Two club in a nondescript town while coming to terms with a homosexuality so private that he hardly dare confess it to himself, it clearly has issues to tackle. Perhaps Raisin’s most remarkable achievement is to turn this into a worthwhile literary endeavour rather than merely an idea or a discussion point: a less restrained author would’ve created something more openly confrontational, or perhaps more bitterly cynical, and lost the novel in the process.

It helps enormously that Raisin has a keen eye for detail. There is no room in a fictional description of something as familiar and as beloved as football for anything to be misplaced, for anything to jar you awake; it must all be just right. Bar a very few occasions when, as nearly always happens, the narrative requires fans to chant things that fans wouldn’t chant, this feels like football. Indeed, some of it is outright beautiful: the build-up to a new season, with all of its hope and its energy and its freshly-mown grass, is made to sing really quite exquisitely.

More, you get the impression that Raisin has done his research. Much of the novel is set at the training ground, in the dressing room and on the team coach, and has a sense of sending messages back from a private, closed world. It’s hard to draw a firm line between what the author has been told off the record and what he’s made up; I don’t doubt that some of the more, um, exuberant bits fall into the former category. Again, there is some fine writing here, particularly in capturing the desperate fragility of a football career, the brusque horror of the announcement that you’ve been cast aside and that there might be nowhere to fall except into part-time obscurity. It’s over. Shut the door on your way out. The bitter isolation of the long-term injured is also drawn vividly, painfully.

But the novel’s foundation is Raisin’s skill in making us live in the space between someone else’s ears, and particularly in capturing loneliness and insecurity in a crowded, boisterous room. He writes simply and economically, and with considerable empathy; his best prose has a stillness and a silence that’s uneasy and powerful, and that’s well-suited to the blank walls of unconfessed depression. Even without its central thread, without its protaganist’s homosexuality, that would make it a fine read. It will make you think about the people you watch on a Saturday afternoon, about their private lives, about their inner lives. About their well-being.

In truth, the central romance is less satisfactory. In choosing the club groundsman as the other half of the illicit affair, Raisin appears to deliberately echo Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and he’s clearly intent on there being an awkward hesitancy to their encounters; the problem is that it becomes difficult to separate the echoes from cliche and the characters’ awkward hesitancy from that of the author’s prose. It isn’t his strong suit, and one wonders whether there might’ve been a less easily defined but potentially truly great novel lurking in the background, one which sacrificed or perhaps marginalised the affair in favour of a quieter reverie. The same is true for the final twenty or thirty pages, which start to feel a bit like a narrative stuff-to-do list, lacking the courage simply to drift into contemplation. It deserves better.

Despite all of that, “A Natural” is a rare thing indeed: a fictional rendering of the game we all love, its innards falling out before us, its soul laid bare. It has much to say, but it says it gently, with restraint and with a good deal of love. It isn’t always comfortable, but neither does it fall prey to the temptation of being relentlessly uncomfortable. It shines light into some extremely dark places. And no, it doesn’t make you believe that a footballer with an active career will come out any time soon…

Advertisements

Comments»

No comments yet — be the first.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: