Monday, August 15, 2011

The Book of Fame by Lloyd Jones

I'm back from Belgium with lots of good memories, a head cold that started after I landed in Edmonton and a laptop that refuses to connect to the internet. On a borrowed machine, doped up on medication and probably jetlagged too, here is a review of one of the books I read on the trip.

Author Lloyd Jones is probably best known in North America for his novel Mister Pip. The Book of Fame is also a New Zealand award-winner. It's a fictionalized account of the true story of the original All Black team of young rugby players who travelled to the UK in 1905 where they astounded sports fans with their skill. I know next to nothing about rugby but I was swept up in this amazing tale.

Over the course of a year, the New Zealand team lost only one match out of 35 games. "For the record, we scored 830 points and conceded 39." You don't have to know anything about the scoring system to recognize what a feat this was. Final scores give a good indication of their prowess: Oxford (47-nil); Bedford (41-nil); Munster (33-nil); Yorkshire (40-nil). Their crushing itinerary had them sometimes playing two or more games per week. They suffered broken ribs and collar bones among other injuries and illness and continued to win against the top British teams. The men came from humble backgrounds - farmers, miners, civil servants - and their first impressions of England exemplify this: "There appeared to be little in the way of landscaping left to do."

The choice of first person plural narration is an inspired and perfect choice because the men worked so well as a team they were like one individual with many bodies. The only other time I've read a novel in this viewpoint is in Eleanor Brown's The Weird Sisters. The format Jones used could be loosely described as verse. Vignettes, fragments of newspaper accounts, personal journal entries and list poems are all part of the mix. There are accounts of game details too, of course, but I never felt overwhelmed by too much sports talk.

When I finished the book, I immediately felt the need to watch an All Blacks haka on YouTube. I could imagine the impression it would make on the opposing team!

I highly recommend The Book of Fame to readers who enjoy travel writing or historical fiction with a focus on people and everyday-life details. It's a must for rugby fans.


Claire at Latitude said...

Glad you liked it, Lindy: so did I, and I'm SO NOT a sports fan. It was very lyrical... One of the things I also really liked was the way these men would have been taught to consider far-away England as "Home", yet it wasn't.

I'd forgotten about the first-person plural. Another NZ writer who employs it effectively is Carl Nixon, in a novel called Rocking Horse Road. But that's not a novel where you can feel for people in the way you do with The Book of Fame.

Lindy said...

Thank you for the gift of this book, Claire. I recommended it to someone else at the library yesterday.