Book Review: “A Natural” by Ron Raisin

27 August 2018

Generally, I’m not a fan of sports-related fiction. I find it’s either too hyper-masculine, too nostalgic, or both. But when I heard that Ron Raisin, author of God’s Own Country, which was made into an achingly beautiful and sensitive film in 2017, had turned his considerable narrative talent to the world of professional English football, I was immediately intrigued and couldn’t wait to give it a read.

I am fairly confident in saying that A Natural is unlike any other sports novel you’re likely to read any time soon. Without giving too much away, this is the story of Tom Pearman, an ex- Premier League academy footballer who now finds himself playing for a lower professional league in a town he’s never heard of. On the surface, Tom looks like your stereotypical young English footballer. But you sense early on that there’s something different about him, something you can’t quite put your finger on. He’s a solitary figure, reclusive and perhaps more sensitive than his rather laddish teammates, but you’re not quite sure. Little is given away at first.

Then Tom meets Liam, his club’s head groundsman. Liam is a former goalkeeper whose professional career never took off. He is also the son of the team’s chairman and a friend of Leah, a lonely young mother and the wife of Chris Easter, the team’s brooding and morose captain, whose career has seen better days and who seems to exist on a knife’s edge, ready to blow at any minute.

A Natural is a story of love and sexual repression set against a backdrop of toxic masculinity and rampant homophobia. As a longtime fan of the English Premier League I am well-aware of the locker room antics and homophobia within the league, but what is most startling and moving about this novel is that it exposes this bigotry in a way that is all the more powerful for the subtlety of author Ron Raisin’s approach.

The ending is inevitable and yet it still manages to surprise. The author’s message is clear yet nothing about A Natural is preachy. Its matter-of-factness startles, moves, and makes you look at the world of professional and semi-professional football/soccer in a sobering light. How many footballers out there are like Tom Pearman?  More than we imagine, I daresay.


6 August 2018: More Art and Other Miscellany

Left London yesterday afternoon and am now at Brockhall, where I will be based until the end of September. The weather is still hot and stuffy but the forecast promises some relief toward the end of the week when the temperature is supposed to drop into the high-60s. The house isn’t air-conditioned and a trip to Home Base proved what I had been told – fans are at a premium…in other words, they’re sold out. Too much air-conditioning is bad for you anyway, right?

I applied online for my National Insurance number this morning. For those of you outside the UK, an NI number is like a social security number. You need it for tax purposes as well as for being employed. The application was (surprisingly) very straightforward. I received confirmation that within the next 24-48 hours, I’d be given a date/time to schedule an interview.  Butterflies in my stomach but an item checked off my “To-Do” list. I also got my picture taken in a photo booth in Tesco for my provisional driver’s license application.

Despite the broiling heat in London, I managed to attend two exhibitions on Saturday. The first was the “Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire” at the National Gallery. Cole is celebrated for founding the Hudson River Valley school of painting in the mid-19th century. He was a Brit from Manchester who witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of industrialization on Manchester’s cotton mills (devastating from the perspective of the laborer) before moving to Philadelphia with his family in the early 1800s. His paintings are often epic in scale and serve as visual polemics on the destructiveness of modern life and industry upon Nature. The exhibition is beautifully and thoughtfully curated and makes for prescient viewing amidst today’s technology-obsessed media-driven world. (It was also, mercifully, very well air-conditioned!)

I then hiked from Trafalgar Square along Pall Mall and up to Piccadilly to attend the annual Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. The art on display this year is a riot of color, irreverence, and contrasts of style and tone. It was bright and fun and just what you would expect from an exhibition curated this year by Grayson Perry. Because there is so much to see and the walls of each gallery are hung to capacity — not to mention the hoards of well-lubricated attendees crowding each room (a full bar is on site in one of the galleries for the occasion) — one cannot possibly take it all in on one go. For that reason, the catalog comes in handy. I look forward to giving it a more thorough read this week.

In contrast, an accompanying show celebrating 250 years of the Summer Exhibition was a much more staid, though no less enlightening, affair. The newly renovated and greatly expanded Royal Academy is terrific to behold. I’ll be going back when next I’m in London.

On an unrelated note, I just started reading Ross Raisin’s latest novel “A Natural.” I didn’t realize he’d written “God’s Own Country,” the film version of which I streamed a few months ago and was absolutely smitten — shares a similar subject matter to “Brokeback Mountain” but better, grittier, and more real. Based on the reviews I’ve read, I think “A Natural” does something similar within the context of professional English football. I’m only fifty pages in, but Raisin writes like a dream.

That’s all for now. It’s 5:30pm which means “Eggheads” in half an hour. The game shows here are addictive.