Published in paperback in 2018 this is Ross Raisin’s third novel in a career which has already seen considerable acclaim including the Sunday Times Young Writer Of The Year Award following the appearance of his debut “God’s Own Country.” The publication date is significant here as this book became my choice for the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge “Read a book published in 2017”.
I’ve not read Ross Raisin before but was drawn to this by some excellent reviews. It has been compared to Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” (1997) but here it’s not cowboys but the world of British professional football. Like Proulx’s short story which became the basis for an Oscar winning film (2005) this is a very claustrophobic piece, generally grim and paints a fairly depressing hostile environment inhabited by the characters.
It did make me wonder who would want to be a footballer and brought home clearly the uncertainty and fear in their working lives in the world outside of the top divisions. This in itself made for fascinating reading but the conflicted sexuality of main character Tom added another layer of misery. It has been many years since Justin Fashanu was forced out of the closet and had a time so dire that those involved in sport chose not to follow in his footsteps for a considerable period. Since then there have been initiatives from the FA and of course changing attitudes in the rest of society but from this novel not a lot seems to have changed in the attitudes of the other players, the fans and the clubs themselves. It would be great to think that a book like this could change things but it all seems so entrenched and those who need to read it wouldn’t. It gets to the point where the central relationship doesn’t seem worth it for all of those involved.
I found the lack of joy rather grinding and I felt the same way about “Brokeback Mountain”. Perhaps there’s some consolation in that none of the characters, whatever their sexuality, seemed happy.
There’s a lot of football in this book. I cannot remember reading sport-based fiction where the sport features so heavily. I’m not a football fan (my secondary school education saw to that) so I did find myself struggling to get enthused about Tom’s world around a third of the way through. The section of the novel between football seasons came as quite a relief.
So then, I found it overly negative and with too much football but I actually did find myself getting really involved and this is due to Raisin’s really quite subtle skills as a story-teller and his ability to bridge the distance between what this particular reader would find interesting and draw him right in. That is an impressive achievement gained by the sheer skill of this writer. I cannot say I totally enjoyed this book but I was thoroughly impressed.
A Natural was first published in 2017. I read the 2018 Vintage Paperback edition.