Bizarrely, there seems to have been a recent resurgence in the cricketing novel – Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman, Jennie Walker’s 24 for 3 – but football is still underexposed in the fictional landscape. Anthony Cartwright’s novel Heartland takes for its structure two games: the England-Argentina first round match in the 2002 World Cup, and an end-of-season thriller in fictional Cinderheath, in Dudley, that threatens to eclipse even that bitter international rivalry. Cinderheath Sunday Football Club has been annexed by the local BNP supporters as ‘their’ team, and they seem equally intent on beating Cinderheath Muslim Community FC off as on the field.
The link between the two is Rob, a former professional player, who turns out for the local side as a favour, went to school with some of his opponents, and in his job as secondary school teaching assistant is right behind ideas of integration – he’d better be, his uncle Jim is the local Labour councillor, and there are elections looming too. These two tight, tense games extend over the whole of the novel, peppered with flashbacks to Rob’s childhood, and his attempts to engage the local disadvantaged and disillusioned kids in their schoolwork before they can be sidetracked into extremism of one kind or the other.
The way that despair at life and disgust at politicians that can tip over into racial hatred is well represented in the book, which wears its West Midlands accent on its sleeve: “All I know is, things ay right,” one of Rob’s friends says at one point. “Nobody looks out for we. Iss everything for them. Yome all right if yome a Muslim but if yome from here yow con look aht.” Rob knows that football can be a way of bridging that divide, but his idealism has been worn down by his failed career, his “twelve seasons making a long, steady slide into nonentity.”
There is a sense of hope, and the wider picture, in the figure of Jasmine, a local girl who’s gone away to London and is back, teaching, and Adnan, a schoolfriend of Rob’s, who disappeared ten years ago – everyone thinks, or fears, to train with the Taliban. There is much here that rings true, and barely a sentence is out of place, but still with its jumpy, unflowing structure the novel – like the football games at its heart – takes a certain amount of work to get through. After all, even football isn’t always the beautiful game.
Jonathan Gibbs blogs at http://tinycamels.wordpress.com/.