Review of No Number Nine, by F. J. Campbell

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Most North American call this game ‘field hockey’ and think hockey means ice hockey. Many have the equally provincial notion that it a ‘girl’s game’. But it is a game favouring team work and quick and accurate passing over running the pitch, and assists as much as shots on goal. And one reason I also prefer the women’s game is that they are better than men at relationships, with teams displaying a sense of sisterhood. But the exigencies of plot in No Number Nine require a focus on men’s hockey, specifically the German and Australian national teams at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. 

Philippa ‘Pip’ Mitchell is an eighteen-year old English girl who becomes an au pair looking after Max and Ferdi, the ten and eight year-old sons of a wealthy German family, the von Feldsteins. She is possessed of fluent German (and French – I was amused to discover that se taper has the same connotations as our word bang). Pip also possesses some heavy emotional baggage. Two years before, her sister Holly, a hockey player on the GBNWT, was killed by being struck on the head by a ball. (A hockey ball weighs about the same as a cricket ball or baseball – a goalkeeper kitted out in protective gear could easily be mistaken for a demolitions expert on a roadside in Iraq.) This loss has not on left Pip with a super case of PTSD, she also had sex with her sister’s widower husband, Troy Costa, a Kookaburra, the Australian MNT. (The women’s team are the Hockeyroos.) Pip hides her relationship (although she plans to fly out to Sydney for the Olympics at her own expense) and affects to despise the game of hockey, although she had been a very capable U-16 player. Which turns out to be a huge complication, because the von Feldsteins not only own a hockey club, but that Max and Ferdi have two twenty something elder brothers who are keen hockey players aspiring to playing in the Olympics on the German national men’s team. If you’ve watched a German national team play, the elder brother Leo will be no surprise – totally disciplined and keen on angles and sports psychology. His brother Billy lives and plays more like an Argentinian, all flair and gusto. (When Pip first discovers him, he’s in bed with Leo’s then girlfriend.)

I loved this book. It’s excellent  and very erotic, including what I call the ‘erotics of competition’ – the thrill of playing a sport to the very maximum. Which another marvellous facet of hockey – sheer athleticism – the players run virtually nonstop whilst on the pitch. The clock only stops for penalty corners. I was disappointed with some of Campbell’s descriptions of play as perfunctory. ‘Australia scored an unstoppable field goal from a volley after twenty-two minutes, to which Germany responded with a goal from a penalty corner five minutes later.’ That’s an opportunity for exciting sports writing too good to miss. A penalty corner is about the only time the clock stops for the kind of set play you find in American football, with lots of opportunity for deception and usually a fearless first flyer defender rushing from the cage to prevent the offence getting a shot off. But I liked this score with Pip watching on television: ‘Billy dived in front of the goal. Pip’s heart hammering, he slid along the AstroTurf, Pip’s eyes glued to the screen, he stretched out his stick, Pip’s mouth opening in a scream, he gave the ball the lightest of touches to send it into the back of the goal.’ Last year in the FIH Pro League I watched the New Zealand striker Olivia Merry execute the same shot against USA. Brilliant.

The characters lacked some believability for me too. I could not understand why Pip would want to follow Troy out to Australia only to break up with him, except the plot required it. He has other plans, and his inept proposal scene is the funniest thing outside of a Jane Austen novel. And it takes Campbell forever finally to resolve the relationship between Leo and Pip. As a crazy romantic, I would have set on it a boat in Sydney harbour during a fireworks display to mark the close of the games.

I so hope F. J. Campbell will write some more hockey fiction. I’d love a slightly older protagonist, perhaps one who had played for an American uni (there were several on last year’s England U-21 team), who’s now graduated and playing for a club like Surbiton. And with both an American and British boyfriend, perhaps. You can see the possibilities.

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