A NATURAL by Ross Raisin
Random House, 2017
The thing that should not be underestimated as you read through my thoughts on A Natural is just how much I hate sports – which probably raises the question of why I decided a book about football/soccer to begin with, to which I can answer: if I had understood the extent to which this book is about football/soccer, I probably would not have picked in up in the first place. Instead I’d seen it billed as a coming-of-age novel about a gay footballer, and I suppose I thought the football/soccer would be mostly backdrop. Reader, it was not backdrop.
There’s a reason this book is 400 pages, and it’s because Ross Raisin details just about every single match, every single inner working of this low-level soccer club, with unerring precision. And for the first half of the book, it was frankly driving me mad. But then in the second half of the novel, when we start to dive into the meat of the story – our protagonist Tom beginning a relationship with the club’s groundskeeper – I found that my frustration with Raisin’s narrative choices was beginning to abate. Yes, I still found the soccer talk endlessly tedious, but the criticisms that I’d had (that soccer was the foreground, Tom’s story was the background, how does this make for a compelling narrative at all, why hadn’t an editor come at this manuscript with a machete) started to mostly* fly out the window, because it’s impossible to deny how well-crafted this book is. It’s a slow burn in every sense of the phrase: it’s a slow-paced story, and (unless you’re riveted by soccer) it withholds its rewards until you get to the end.
*I did have another criticism that never fully faded, though I began to understand it more in the second half: why certain chapters were given to the perspective of a married couple, one of Tom’s fellow footballers, Chris, and his wife Leah. Their story does dovetail with the central narrative and I do understand the decision to include their point of view, but I’m not convinced that we needed as much detail here as we got.
I know I’m doing a pretty poor job of selling this or explaining my 4 star rating (hang in there!), but the thing is, I’m not sure that this is a book I’d widely recommend. It takes patience and perseverance and if I were in the habit of DNFing I probably would have called it quits at the halfway mark. But if this sounds at all like a story you’re willing to commit to, it gets really, really good. Raisin navigates the homophobic world of professional sport with a deft hand, meditating with perception on themes of performative masculinity, shame, and the tension between the inner and outer selves. I think Raisin is a tremendously gifted writer, and the way he renders the relationship between Tom and Liam is so palpably fragile that it’s almost painful to read at times. So while this book wasn’t perfectly targeted to my preferences as a reader, I do think it’s a gem of a book that I’m glad to have read… and ultimately to have stuck with.
You can pick up a copy of A Natural here on Book Depository.