For those who know me, the idea of me being enthralled by the progress of a test cricket match might seem bizarre, but that’s the effect this brilliant new book has had. Spinner, a debut novel by WA scriptwriter and academic Ron Elliott, is about much more than cricket, but for the first time in my life I have felt the excitement of match play and have an inkling of the intricacy of the game.
It’s a measure of Elliott’s mastery that the written word succeeded where the real thing failed. I was actually at the MCG when Garfield Sobers scored a century on the way to his record-breaking 254 runs in 1972, but I didn’t grasp the significance of what Don Bradman described as ‘probably the greatest exhibition of batting ever seen in Australia’. In a generous gesture that I failed to appreciate, my mother-in-law had taken me to the match in an effort to encourage an interest in the national obsession. (She took me a Grand Final of Australian Rules Football that year as well, but that didn’t work either and I’ve always felt a bit guilty about the ticket being wasted on me).
Perhaps it’s because the voice in Spinner is so authentic that I was captivated by it. Told in the simple, direct style of an uneducated country boy, it’s the story of David Donald, twelve years old and a gifted spin bowler already. In Steven Carroll’s The Gift of Speed we see a boy dreaming of escape from his mundane life through cricket, but in Spinner, the transformation of David’s life is a metaphor for our national legends.
It was a different world back then. Orphaned by the Great War, David spends his childhood with his austere grandfather in the WA backblocks. The Depression is looming and the men who came back from the War are finding that it’s not ‘a land fit for heroes’ at all. There’s a drought and the man who’s brought David up alone is doing it tough. However, in spare moments between David’s hard yakka on the farm and the drudgery of school, this man teaches the boy the mysteries of spin bowling. And more than that – without the benefit of TV broadcasts to illustrate technique – he teaches the boy the psychology of the art. He teaches David to spook batsmen into playing a wrong shot.
The (mostly) third person narrative is told from David’s perspective so it’s limited by his age and lack of experience. He’s a perceptive boy (though a dolt at school) but he’s still a child. So whereas the reader can ‘read between the lines’, the boy, for example, doesn’t understand the significance of the ominous visit from Mr Pringle, who owns ‘The Westralian and the bank’ (p41). His grandfather is the silent type, rigid in his ideas and emotionally distant, so David is told not a word about his father who didn’t come back from the war, and nothing about his mother who drowned in the dam when David was three. He learns to be quiet, to watch and to think, and to keep his thoughts to himself.
But it doesn’t take David long to work out that his Uncle Michael is a shyster. He has a dubious limp from the war and a too-easy smile to disarm the people he cons. He deflects suspicion with amusing banter and he has a flexible moral code that contrasts with the black-and-white strictures that rule David’s life with his grandfather. But Uncle Michael has contacts in the world of Australian cricket and he can see that David’s precocious talent is a way for him to make a quid. And as it happens, grandfather has a reason to let the boy go…
With the English team in ascendancy and the national mood in despair for more reasons than just losing the cricket, there’s an opportunity for a boy who has mastered the tricky art of spin-bowling to achieve a miracle. There are some dramatic moments when gamblers of one sort or another aren’t keen for him to help the Aussies win. Along the way, Elliott reveals the shadow of the Great War on David’s family and on the Australian psyche.
This is a great book. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t make it onto reading lists for Year 12 across the country.
Kim at Reading Matters liked it too.
PS: Good News Update re availability overseas 21.1.11
US and UK buyers can get hold of a copy from the IPG Group here. (Thanks to Claire from Fremantle Press for this info.)
Author: Ron Elliott
Publisher: Fremantle Press 2010
Source: Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press.