When my (then-future) husband and I worked at the record company, we distinguished ourselves by playing Ashes commentary on the radio rather than blasting the latest hits. I developed a romantic attachment to cricket as a teenager; my school didn't offer it as a sport as such, but a few of us used to take bat and ball up to the top field and muck around. Needless to say I had no skill at all, but I've always loved the way the long drama of the game unfolds; the individual duels between batter and bowler within the team battle; the leisurely pace that enables you to read a book while you're watching; the aesthetic appeal of white on green. I suspect Inga Simpson comes from a similar place of sentimental loyalty to the idea of the game; it's telling that she sets her story in the early 2000s, just before the current domination of the shortest form of the game, 20-20 (which I personally loathe).
Willowman tells a cricket story from both sides of the fence, from the point of view of an up and coming young batsman (sorry, batter) and from a devoted fan of the game, a lapsed musician and bat-maker. Their narratives intertwine, amplifying and reflecting each other. Women, so often obscured or omitted in a sport-centred story, also play an important part in the novel -- Olivia Harrow, Todd's sister, is just as accomplished a player as her brother, but faces a harder road as a woman player; Todd's partner rides the rollercoaster of selection and injury with him, as well as pursuing her own career goals; the bat-maker's daughter escapes a violent marriage and helps her father revive the family business by specialising in making bats for women. The novel features some real past players in cameo roles, but 'current' players are all fictional, allowing Simpson to include an openly gay member of the Australian team, something we have yet to see in reality.
Willowman is a beautifully written love letter to the most poetic of sports. Simpson acknowledges that the game is always evolving, but there is still a nostalgic feel to this book -- I hope Willowman doesn't prove to be an elegy.