Book review: A Natural

Ross Raisin’s arrival on the literary scene was somewhat explosive with a stunningly crafted debut in 2008. God’s Own Country was a truly remarkable book. 

Book review: A Natural

Ross Raisin

Jonathan Cape, £12.99 pb

It had a voice and atmosphere that was as striking and idiosyncratic as Holden Caulfield’s in Catcher in the Rye. His central character, Sam Marsdyke, made for very creepy company but he was also utterly captivating as unreliable narrators go.

What was also thrilling was the way in which a particular Yorkshire vernacular was used to reinforce a colourful sense of isolation and quirkiness.

It was a book that could stand shoulder to shoulder with Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy.

The first thing that is noticeable about Raisin’s latest outing is that there is no obvious attempt at such literary stylings and flourishes.

In fact, finely written as this one is it initially feels more ordinary, if not flatter as a piece of writing. But the longer you roll with the book and its style the more it becomes apparent that the muted style serves the story very well.

The setting itself is decidedly low on bells and whistles being the lowest tier of English league football in a fictional club referred to only as Town.

Tom Pearson has played for England in a number of underage teams and when we meet him he is starting out with Town, a team that is struggling against relegation and in which Tom is struggling to get his game.

More than a book about sport it is a book about a young man struggling to find his groove in the rough and tumble of fairly unforgiving, male society.

As a young man – not much more than a boy – living away from home every setting in which he finds himself feels like a foreign land which he must negotiate, whether that is the showers after training, the hotel room he shares with the captain on trips away or the family digs where he is rooming.

With understatement, Tom is presented as a scriptless actor trying to improvise his way through every new setting with which he is faced.

Of course one of the most theatrical of all stages he must negotiate is Town’s football ground where he struggles to make his mark.

Overriding all of this paralysing stage fright – or perhaps at its root – is Tom’s struggle with his sexuality.

Although the style is low-key and the atmosphere often strained and forlorn, the locations are evoked strongly and the characters are really well drawn.

When one of Tom’s team mates has a career-threatening injury you realise how involved you have become as a reader when you feel the dull thud of disappointment when it becomes clear who is lying prone on the ground.

Once the book opens out it is clear that sexuality is at the centre of it.

Homosexuality struggles to find its place in the clamour of the football world where loud homophobic banter emanates from the showers, the terraces and the internet fan forums.

There is quite a lot of ugliness in the pictures Raisin paints of human nature but against that there is much tenderness too.

In the stripped down language of the book Raisin allows himself some simple serviceable poetry, like the resonating title which speaks of this skilful young footballer and his burgeoning sexual nature.

Raisin also allows himself the image of the young man carting from place to a place a small collection of cactus plants, stashing them away in his bedroom rather than giving them a place in the sun. Strangulated as this harshly male world feels the writer catches characters and milieu vividly.

In a novel that aches with thwarted ambition and thwarted nature it feels like Raisin has buttoned down his own literary style to get in harmony with all of these sporting and personal agonies set deep in the relegation zone.

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