Review: THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET by Jock Serong

therulesofbackyardcricket29023_fWhen THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET opens Darren Keefe is trussed up in the boot of a moving vehicle. He believes he is being taken somewhere to be killed and doesn’t seem terribly surprised by the fact. For him the only real mystery is whether or not he’ll be forced to dig his own grave before death. A difficult proposition given his left hand hasn’t worked properly since the broken thumb of years before. And he’s been shot in one knee.

For a long time this is really all we learn about Darren’s present-day life. Over the rest of the book there are brief return visits to the boot, where Darren is making half-hearted attempts to free his cable-tied limbs. But before we can find out why Darren is in this predicament we have to learn what led up to it. Darren’s story begins on the backyard pitch where he and his older brother Wally fight for supremacy

From the day – lost now in the Kodachrome blur – when we take up backyard cricket, we are an independent republic of rage and obsession. Our rules, our records, our very own physics. Eye-to-eye and hand-to-hand combat. By the time we emerge into the world beyond the paling fences, it surprises us to learn that anyone considers this a team sport.

You might not have grown up in a cricket-mad household. The names Lillee, Thomo and the rest may mean nothing to you. And it’s possible that you don’t know mid-on from fine leg (the vegie patch and the asbestos outhouse respectively in the Keefe backyard, the small rose garden and the rumpus room wall in the backyard of my own youth). You may never have known the anguish of watching a whole Test only to have it end in a rain-soaked draw on the final day. But even if all this is true you couldn’t fail to miss the authenticity in the depiction of Darren and Wally’s lives. It’s not just that the pages of the book have absorbed Australian cricketing lore in a physical way. It’s that the obsession the boys display for it is entirely believable. The most natural thing in the world. Their single mother works dead-end barmaid jobs to keep her sons in cricket gear. The game – and their skill at it – is the best chance they have of not re-living her own hard life and Pamela Keefe is almost as determined as her boys.

But, like many brothers that have come before them, the Keefes are not equal in all things. Wally is disciplined, focused, responsible, emotionally impenetrable. Qualities which are almost as important as his talent in securing him the ultimate prize – the Australian captaincy. Darren is none of these things. To call him a risk taker would be misleading; implying as it does that he weighs up the potential consequences of his actions. Darren doesn’t put nearly enough thought into things for that. On the field his innate ability and the fact that his boyhood tussles with Wally were tougher than almost anything anyone else can dish out take him a long way. But a combination of hubris and lack of forethought bring on the game-changing injury to his hand. He never reaches the heights he imagined for himself as a kid. Though high enough that his fall from grace, when he becomes “…a man who retains a public profile, but with all the good parts eaten away”, is deeply painful to watch.

That was the first surprise for me here. As someone who normally wavers between disgust and boredom at the adoration and sycophancy heaped upon sports stars – even those who continuously engage in juvenile, debauched and often illegal activities – I was not predisposed to feeling much other than scorn for Darren Keefe. And some of that is there. He really does have no one but himself to blame for his circumstances. But Serong’s portrait is so nuanced…so honest…that I will, somewhat grudgingly, admit to feeling much more. At times my heart ached. Because I saw that to be angry at Darren for his inability to behave sensibly would be akin to scoffing at a paralysed person for not walking up a flight of stairs. Like there is free will involved in either case.

The resolution to the story was the second surprise. In the way that being struck from behind with a brick might be. The noir label is thrown around with far too much abandon for my liking but as I closed the back cover of this book I thought it might just be the most perfect example of the genre I’ve read. In forever. For me noir is at its finest when the inevitable quality to the ending is only visible in hindsight and I am left physically aching for a different outcome while knowing such a thing would be both impossible and imperfect. The very definition of bittersweet.

I would recommend this book to everyone. Except I am a bit worried about how those who still think of cricket as the gentleman’s game might fare with it. There’s nothing genteel about any of the cricket in this book. Not the war waged in the Keefe’s backyard and not the big, sometimes corrupt business they are involved with as adults. But everyone who isn’t afraid of losing their wide-eyed innocence about the sport should read this book. It is beautifully written, brutally honest and gets the balance of aching sadness and dark humour just right. An outstanding read.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Text [2016]
ISBN 9781925355215
Length 291 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

A blessing of awards for Australian crime fiction

In the interests of full disclosure I should admit that the collective noun ‘blessing’ apparently applies to unicorns but since I’m not convinced fictional creatures should get a noun all of their own I thought I’d borrow it for my purpose. Due to life…and death…getting in the way I have been remiss in discussing all the recent awards that have come the way of Australian crime writers lately but I’m hoping the old adage “better late than never” still applies to most of life’s awkwardnesses.

LifeOrDeathRobothamAudioIn reverse order, timeline wise, we’ll start with congratulating Michael Robotham whose LIFE OR DEATH won the prestigious British Crime Writer’s Association Gold Dagger Award this week. It’s a standalone novel that starts with the premise of a young man escaping from a Texas prison on the day before he is due to be released. Driven equally by in-depth character development and a heart-stopping plot it’s easy to see why the judges were taken with this novel, even with its impressive competition. Kerrie reviewed the novel here at Fair Dinkum Crime (and though I didn’t review the novel I concur with her sentiments and can also recommend the audio version of the book beautifully narrated by John Chancer). An article in Today’s Sydney Morning Herald provides some background information on the novel and Michael’s history as a writer, including a heartfelt admission on the downside of being a ghost writer.

BigLittleLiesMoriartyNext we move to the 2015 Davitt awards for crime writing by Australian women which were announced on August 29. Best Adult Crime Novel went to Liane Moriarty for the surprise crime novel BIG LITTLE LIES. As this book is set to be a film starring ‘our’ Nicole I suspect this is not the last we’ve heard of this particular title. Other winners on the night included Ellie Marney for Best Young Adult Novel with EVERY WORD and Caroline Overington for LAST WOMAN HANGED which took out the Best Non-Fiction category. The Reader’s Choice Award (voted by members of Sisters in Crime) went to Sandi Wallace’s TELL ME WHY. And because she is one of my favourite authors ever I can’t let this occasion pass without noting the Highly Commended certificate judges gave to Sulari Gentill’s A MURDER UNMENTIONED in the Best Adult Novel category.

EdenCandiceFoxFinally we must mention this year’s Ned Kelly Awards, winners of which were announced earlier in August. Candice Fox’s second novel EDEN took out the Best Crime Novel Award while Helen Garner’s THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF won in the Best True Crime category and QUOTA by Jock Serong was voted Best First Crime novel. We’ve been a bit remiss here at FDC in not reviewing any of these but at least two of these are buried in my mountain of unread books so I will get to them. One day.

I think that’s it for all the missed news, our belated congratulations to all.