Close of Play
P. J. Whiteley
Urbane Publications £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20
THIS book reads, as it is intended to, like a meander through the English countryside: wild excitements are unlikely, but peaceful predictability is guaranteed. Set in mid-Sussex 20 years ago, the novel centres on Brian Clarke, a solicitor and churchgoer (keen on tweed), who is also the slightly ageing stalwart of the village cricket team. Enter Elizabeth, whom he meets at church, a single teacher with an interesting past, and so the relationship develops and unravels throughout the novel.
Written in the first person, Brian has delightful observations on church life, familiar to anyone who may rush in and out on a Sunday, forgetful of the preparation involved. Commenting on the relatively new vicar, Godfrey, as one who was “an earnest and intelligent soul, younger than such a Christian name might indicate, and deserving of more attention than I gave”, he describes the frustrations of fellow parishioners at the indecisive nature of the sermons, but concludes that he finds such cautious phrasing reassuring: “Life is complex, and I rather imagine God is, too.”
There are also as many observations on the characters and talents of the cricket team, with perhaps one too many details of life at the crease, but dry English humour prevails, and, when asked by Elizabeth if he likes golf, he responds: “Hitting a stationary ball? It’s about as exciting as picking up litter.”
Silly mid-offs apart, the strength of the book is in the portrayal of characters and complex relationships at the heart of any community, as well as the goodness that can be witnessed and experienced by living out the Christian faith rather than criticising the new vicar’s sermons. It does not shirk from people’s pasts, either, acknowledging that any relationship later in life brings inevitable baggage, sexual and otherwise.
Close of Play is well written, but most of all well observed. There is a clever denouement: the end chapter provides the reader with up-to-date information on the lives of the characters 20 years on. Describing a couple (both feature earlier in the book) who split up, met new partners, and had further children, the author writes: “Both families (or is it just one extended family?) meet up for barbecues sometimes. It’s not what the Bible envisaged, but you cannot deny the human love.”