I’ve been pushed out of a lot of comfort zones lately, over and over again, but this one at least I chose to leave. I know absolutely nothing about rugby league (or rugby union for that matter). Buuut is it really about the rugby league? Of course not. It’s about life, and class, and growing up, and masculinity.
Some spoilers follow, as ever.
I don’t really have anything fascinating to say about it – on a sort of meta level I liked the time and place, and the period detail of it. I liked the language – screw everyone who complained about the “impenetrable dialect” in the Goodreads reviews. I can see ESL people having difficulty with a word or two but honestly context makes the vast majority of dialect/old-fashioned words clear. Storey uses phonetic spelling lightly, only a word or two, and anyone who’s ever heard a Yorkshire accent should have no trouble with it. As usual, I bridle at the idea of having to tone down or render unnatural dialogue for the sake of, let’s be honest, the culturally dominant majority.
The narrative voice is that of Arthur, the protagonist, our factory worker rugby league star, and though it’s very matter-of-fact and affectless, the class inequality shines through between the lines. We follow Arthur up his local celebrity trajectory, into this weird between place, where his money carries him above the rest of the working class, but everything else about him keeps him below the next rung. There are Christmas parties at the “big house” of the town (the manor of one of the rugby club’s managers), awkward scenes at a high class restaurant who require more than money from their patrons, and a general confusion almost when it comes to what do do/how to live. Is he supposed to get married? Is he supposed to start a business of his own? He doesn’t quite fit anywhere.
And why does he play rugby at all? He doesn’t seem to particularly love the game for the majority of the book. It’s something to do, that he’s pretty good at, but not prodigiously so, and it gets him money and fame – but does he particularly enjoy that either? He’s constantly on the hunt for something and I don’t think he really knows what it is, beyond “more”. He’s always thinking and noticing but never quite able to articulate in words in the moment. It’s a tense, frustrated book, and the rugby only sometimes breaks the tension, depending on how Arthur’s career is going and how well he plays each week.
He spends a lot of time reading cheap paperbacks about boxers with hot girlfriends and detectives with hot girlfriends, and his life doesn’t mirror theirs at all. His career depends on politics between the two wealthy rival managers of the club as much as on his own talent, and his love life is an unfulfilling series of furtive fumbles with his widowed, unenthusiastic landlady, Mrs Hammond. And oh boy, that is certainly a whole thing. It’s a relationship that never feels healthy. Mrs Hammond is clearly still not over her dead husband, and in a way, you think well, maybe it’s good for her to get out of herself a bit and to have to deal with Arthur living in her house, but also, no, Arthur is pretty terrible to her at times, refusing to respect her clear boundaries and wishes, and once actually hitting her. And at other times he’s trying to explain his genuine, quite tender, feelings towards her, but lacking the language for it, because there’s no framework for such a thing anywhere in his experience. It doesn’t fit with his gender, class or social standing, nor with hers.
There’s a bit where he goes to visit his parents, who are proper stereotypical proud working class, who prize (or claim to prize) their sense of decency and community over financial gain, where the Mrs Hammond thing all comes out – she’s kicked him out, he wants back in, and his parents are horrified at what he’s become. It’s a very effective wake-up call for the reader as well.
But also there’s some aspersions cast on Mrs Hammond herself by Arthur’s parents, in a very oblique way that I think might have made more sense at the time. I was never quite sure what they thought of her or why. They certainly sympathise with her, but there’s also an air of her being perceived as morally dodgy. Maybe because the world sees her as Arthur’s kept woman? Because she’s a widow and he’s a single young man of dubious virtue? It was never quite clear to me, but uncomfortable all the same. She’s done absolutely nothing wrong.
The one thing that made me roll my eyes a bit was the “she has no ~will~ to live” part of Mrs Hammond’s brain haemorrhage, which seemed jarringly wishy-washy and sentimental against the grim reality of the rest. It’s only a very small ugh spot in an otherwise really good book though.
And as pretty much everyone says, that last rugby scene is a belter. Worth the price of admission alone.