Hachette, $32.99 pb, 403 pp
In American culture, the baseball novel is virtually a genre unto itself, baseball offering a metaphor through which the American dream – the rise and fall and rise again of unlikely heroes – might be interrogated. The prologue of Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) offers a stunning example: within all the noise and spectacle of a baseball final an entire nation, as it teeters on the edge of the atomic age, is apprehended.
Why there are so few novels deploying cricket as their defining motif is a question that warrants its own thesis. Pressed to name a ‘cricket novel’ many readers might nominate Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2008). Yet, while Netherland concerns itself (in part) with efforts to found the New York Cricket Club, cricket operates for O’Neill predominantly as a baseball trope, a means of exploring the aspirations of immigrant Americans in the wake of 9/11.
In the Australian context there is Steven Carroll’s The Gift of Speed (2004) – about a young boy in thrall to the West Indies cricket team – but few other novels spring to mind. Beach and backyard cricket commonly function as expressions of the Australian summer, but to understand anything of the mythology of Australian cricket – what it represents beyond its statistics and scorecards – it has been generally necessary to look to sports journalists, such as Greg Baum and Gideon Haigh.
Inga Simpson steps into this apparent void with Willowman. While a distinct change of pace from the dystopian notes of her most recent novel, The Last Woman in the World (2021), Willowman has its wellspring in the same contemplation of nature – its beauty and sanctity – that characterises so much of Simpson’s writing. The best cricket, the novel stresses, acquires the condition of music, ‘humanity, spirit and nature [working] as one’.