According to James Wood's recent primer How Fiction Works, the most unusual form in which the novel can be written is the first-person plural. The only recent example Wood could think of was Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End, set among the numbed confraternity of a New York office block. Lloyd Jones's The Book of Fame, now given its UK debut in the wake of last year's Man Booker-shortlisted and Commonwealth Writers Prize-winning Mister Pip, is another variant on this immensely tricky and problematic genre.
The trickiness lies in the communal point of view. If "we" are always doing something – and here "we" are the members of the inaugural All Blacks rugby tour of 1905 – then individual quiddity can hang slightly out of reach. There is also the question of who the "I" representing the "we" might turn out to be – in the last resort, the authorial plural is camouflage. Jones is sensitive to these constraints, and his account of the team's triumphal progress around the UK (and later Europe and the US) is full of sharp little personal details, quietly hinting at the real identity of its controlling voice.
Although what follows brings many a forensic snap-shot of the on-pitch mayhem, sport is only an incidental part of its canvas. Jones's real subjects, alternatively, are myth, historical coincidence and deracination. The team members are miners, boot-makers and foundrymen. On board the SS Rimutaka, they discover that "Being nowhere in particular, and without traditions to adhere to, we could be whatever or whoever we chose."
News of the Russian pogroms burns steadily in the background; out in the English Channel at the start of the voyage home, a French tender strays into view bearing "400 emigrants from mid-Europe", several of whom are winched aboard.
The tour itself is a strew of impressionistic fragments. The Scottish sporting authorities confirm their ancestral reputation by refusing a match-fee and charging £27 for a frugal lunch. The Welsh, awed but competitive, inflict a solitary defeat. England, on the other hand, "felt like a place specially created for us to excel". There is a wonderful scene in Londonderry, where Billy "Carbine" Wallace sits down to be catechised by the grandfather he has never seen. How does his father spend his Sundays, the grandfather enquires. "Thoughtfully," Billy lobs back, to general approval.
Formal updates are provided by the newspapers, the juxtapositions of sport and politics confirming the novel's darker undertow ("The Times gave us 24 lines, six more than the report on 'New Anglo-Japanese Treaty'").
Fame, celebrity, the admiring crowds and the marriage-hungry women take their inevitable toll: "We grew tired of who we were." If "we" have a weakness, it is for lists – the Cardiff Arms Park programme of musical selections, dinner menus – and occasional paragraphs where the prose re-invents itself as a kind of elegiac blank verse ("Was there ever the time/ to do anything other/ than march under the banner").
Seen in the round, The Book of Fame belongs to the category of whimsical sporting chronicle pioneered by WE Bowman's The Ascent of Rumdoodle and JL Carr's How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup. It is cunningly written and deviously constructed, with the occasional lurches towards twee-ness redeemed by some genuinely poignant moments.
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