24 for 3
by Jennie Walker
Jennie Walker is the pseudonym of poet Charles Boyle. After receiving another rejection letter for his novella and a small legacy on the same day, he decided to self-publish the book. You can read a bit more about that and other self-published novels in this piece from The Times. Bloomsbury have republished it (as a steeply priced hardback given its 138 tiny pages), proudly announcing it as the winner of The 2008 McKitterick Prize with some lovely quotes on the front from Mick Jagger amongst others.
During the five days on which England are playing a test match against India we follow a woman as she moves between her husband and her lover. Alan, the husband, is a 'safe pair of hands', a man we see first in the kitchen wearing 'his best apron, the one with the stripes'. Her lover, the loss adjuster, is more a man of mystery 'Explanations are pointless...Isn't mystery better? Not knowing all the answers?'. The action isn't simply framed by the cricket match being played but defined by it. She asks both men to explain the rules of the game giving Walker the chance to have lots of fun with the baffling names of fielding positions, forms of dismissal and even with the fact that after each team has batted and bowled they have to do it all again. Cricket becomes the means by which she can look at her life and the depth and complexity of a test match make it perfect for symbolism. The support of the team, the single performance that can win a game or lose it, the concept of playing for a win or a draw. It is amazing the richness that Walker is able to conjure in such a short and seemingly simple book. But don't worry if cricket isn't your game. Written from the point of view of a novice it is entertaining whether you're Kevin Pieterson or Kevin The Teenager. Which brings me neatly onto the third man in her life; her stepson Selwyn who, as the novella opens, is missing. In some ways he is the most important man in her life, 'after working my guts out at this thing called human relationships, he taught me how to play'. She is unequivocal in her love for him and their relationship is particularly interesting sandwiched as it is between her two other men.
Self-published novels have an incredible stigma attached to them but with successes like this one, Sade Adeniran's Imagine This (which won a Commonwealth Writers Prize) and the death of the publisher's slush pile it may be that things can change. I'm glad that Charles Boyle believed in this little beauty enough not only to pay for its initial publication but to change sex into the bargain.