John De-Falbe

Good length delivery

John De Walbe on Jennie Walker's novel

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24 for 3

Jennie Walker

Bloomsbury, pp. 144, £

This short novel was first published in a tiny edition at the end of last year. Since then it has won the McKitterick Prize (for the best first novel by an author over forty), and now it is reissued with a glossy picture on the cover and a quote by Mick Jagger saying that he loved it. Good for him: it is superb.

It is narrated by a woman who is having an affair that reaches a crisis during the five days of a Test match. Her focus swings between her husband, who keeps trying to explain the rules of cricket, her lover (‘the loss-adjustor’ — we never learn his name), who won’t explain because it would be like trying to explain a joke, and her 16-year-old stepson, Selwyn, who hasn’t come home. She also worries about Agnieszka, the capable Polish nanny who has lingered in the household and appears to have fallen for an indolent dolt called Harvey.

Although cricket twines through the book, it doesn’t matter if you know nothing and care still less about it. The narrator asks, ‘What’s it for?’. But she sees that this mysterious behaviour amounts to more than the sum of its elaborate rules: either you get it or you don’t. Like love.

…how different would English summers be without slip fielders? If there were five or nine balls in an over and not six? If the loss-adjustor was right-handed and not left-handed?

Similarly, elucidating the extended metaphor might explain how it works but will not adequately reveal why it works. The art lies in the shifting attention, and the particular dynamic between humour (24 for 3 is very funny) and anxiety, such as the sudden worry over what would happen in the game if the ball hit a seagull — and the recall of this worry. A brilliant fluidity suffuses the writing, from cricket to sex, with exquisite combinations:

Fine leg. Gully — gully is good. Slip and slip and slip. Deep backward. There are muscles and other bits being exercised I never knew I had. Some of these positions may be structurally unsafe but surely this is how technology advances — the cantilever bridge, new techniques of drilling for oil.

This is not stagey quirkiness but an authentic narrative voice.

Read 24 for 3. Give it to smart friends, dull ones, brainy and dense ones; leave it on the train instead of a newspaper. I hope it outsells Alan Bennett’s delightful squib, The Uncommon Reader, because it achieves the hardest thing in fiction: joy from difficulty, while maintaining a sense of unforced truth.

John de Falbe’s novel, Dreaming Iris (Cuckoo Press, £11), is publishd this month.