Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 472 pages; 2010.
If I said this was a book about cricket, I suspect many of you would have absolutely no interest in reading it. But even if you hate the sport, there’s plenty to love about this story. Even Lisa Hill from ANZLitLovers, who is not a cricket fan, found herself enthralled by this one. (I’m grateful to Lisa for sharing the love and buying me a copy of my own…)
This novel is the first by Ron Elliott, who is also a television director and screen writer based in Western Australia. It’s apparent that he has probably written it with an eye towards the big screen, because Spinner would make a terrific kid’s movie. It’s got brilliant dialogue, for a start, but it’s also packed with plenty of drama and is peopled with richly drawn characters. And there’s enough plot surprises to keep people on the edge of their seat throughout.
The story is set between the wars. Australia is in the grip of the Great Depression and there’s not much to smile about. Even the national cricket team is experiencing a slump and losing out to its great cricketing rival, England, which has brought out a killer team for the latest test series.
That’s where our hero enters the story. David Donald is a 12-year-old orphan whose father died in the battle fields of France during the Great War. His mother drowned in a dam on the family farm, where David is now being raised by his maternal grandfather, George Baker. George, a “Scottish calvinist”, was once a spin bowler for the state side, and is now training his grandson in the fine art of spin bowling.
David, who has especially long fingers, has a real talent for it, particularly as he seems able to use finger spin and wrist spin techniques when delivering the ball. (Here’s your first cricket lesson: spin bowlers usually use one of these techniques, not both.) In fact, David is so impressive as a spin bowler that he catches the eye of the Australian Cricket Board, and — you guessed it — he becomes the youngest ever member of the national team.
Initially, I thought the story was preposterous (a kid who plays Test cricket at international level!!), but it somehow works because of Elliott’s understated writing style. On the surface this is a simple tale about one boy’s rise to national hero. But underneath there’s a whole lot more going on about the Australian psyche, the way men relate to one another and the redemptive power of sport to cheer up a nation.
Because Spinner is told in the third person, we get an overview of events to which David is not privy. He’s a child after all and much of what happens goes over his head.
And while he’s being ferried around the country in the care of his Uncle Michael, we see that Michael is a spinner of a different variety. He’s what Australians would call a bullshit artist, a man who likes to spin the truth in order to earn a bob or two. When David begins to understand that his uncle is not all that he seems, you really feel his pain — and bewilderment.
While Spinner is fiction, Elliott has clearly based some of the characters on real cricketing heroes from the past and simply changed their names. The fun, if you are a cricket aficionado, is trying to work out who’s a thinly veiled version of who. (I spotted English cricketer Douglas Jardine from the 1932-33 Bodyline series for a start.) It’s also worth reading to try and spot which ball delivered by David Donald is based on Shane Warne’s “ball of the century”.
If you don’t know anything about cricket there is a useful glossary of terms at the back, along with a diagram explaining field positions.
As a love letter to the game of cricket Elliott has certainly hit a six!
Spinner is aimed at a younger audience, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.