‘They could be footballers’

61uQrBS-olL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_I liked Ross Raisin’s debutGod’s Own Country, narrated by rural outcast Sam, and loved his second novel, Waterline, an utterly immersive and convincing narrative of the downwards spiral of ex-dockyard worker Mick after the death of his wife from mesothelioma. A Natural isn’t quite as compelling, but Raisin delivers another solid series of musings on the lives of modern-day men who, for one reason or another, are caught outside of mainstream society. As with Waterline, his prose doesn’t draw attention to itself, but that doesn’t mean that there are no memorable set-pieces – for example, his description of the out-of-season wild growth and pre-season mowing of a football field works brilliantly as both metaphor and as straightforward observation. And he still has the ability to draw a reader forward even when nothing much, on the surface, is happening.

Given Raisin’s obvious interest in twenty-first century masculinity, its fragilities, cracks and challenges, it was no surprise to me to realise that this novel was about a gay footballer. (Football fans, please excuse any misuse of football terminology in this review – my knowledge of football comes entirely from this novel and The Damned United, and I’ve forgotten most of what I learnt already!) Tom Pearman showed early promise as a teenager but has found himself on a poorly-performing team, ‘Town’, which are facing relegation from League Two, and hence out of the Football League. He keeps himself to himself, spending enough time with his teammates not to arouse suspicion but forming no close friendships. However, when he meets groundskeeper Liam and is drawn into a clandestine affair, the emotions that he suppressed for so long finally start to make themselves felt. Tom’s story is interwoven with that of Leah Easter, the captain’s wife, who spends most of her time taking care of her husband and small son, except when she seizes time for herself doing an art course. William Skidelsky’s Guardian review suggests that Leah’s story is both ‘generic’ and unrealistic, and diverts time from the central narrative. However, I disagree. Leah’s domestic drudgery is certainly familiar, but its juxtaposition with the story of a young man whose life is also being shaped by restrictive gender norms works well. Leah’s actions in the final chapters also rang true to me – and I think it’s easy to assume that paying lip-service to ideas about gay equality equates to true acceptance of homosexuality, an idea that Raisin neatly skewers throughout A Natural.

Raisin’s observations on how football players have to uphold especially strict codes of heteronormative masculinity precisely because they are so touchy-feely and emotionally close to each other are nothing groundbreaking, although he weaves these ideas subtly through Tom’s narrative. On holiday with Liam at a ‘gay-friendly’ resort, for example: ‘He noticed two other couples, as well as a group of five Germans whom he presumed to be gay from the way they play-fought and posed endlessly for photos on the beach, although he wondered if that might just be what Germans were like, and he did not discount either the fact that they could be footballers.’ For me, his descriptions both of playing football and of being part of a struggling, minor-league team felt much fresher. Like Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding or Lionel Shriver’s Double Fault, this book pulls off the difficult task of making a sport accessible and interesting to those who have absolutely no knowledge of it, though of course it’s difficult for me to assess how accurately it would read to fans. As for his treatment of homosexuality, there are glimpses of sharp insight into coming out – for example, Liam exclaiming, while realising the absurdity of it, “So I am really gay,” only after he’s been on holiday with Tom. However, there is very little direct examination of either of the boys’ feelings – Raisin focuses instead on their continued silence about the relationship, on what they cannot say. This works well in the first quarter or so of the novel, when Tom’s sexuality is under wraps even from the reader, but I felt there was more space for interrogation as the plot develops. Nevertheless, A Natural is worth reading.

I received a free electronic copy of this novel to review from the publisher via NetGalley.

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