Gomer Press, 340pp
It was a book with a bright blue scrum cap on the front. It had an original slightly quirky, fun title and in bloody big letters told me that it was written by ex-Welsh rugby union captain, columnist and darling of the sport’s commentary, Eddie Butler. In smaller writing there is even an endorsement by commentator on all sports on the planet ever, Clare Balding, proclaiming the novel to be ‘a Grand Slam winning début of a novel.’ ‘Grand Slam’: that’s to do with rugby by the way. So without it being published in the shape of an oval ball, I got it: it was to do with rugby. And as a rugby boy, that means I was its target audience, so much so that I am reviewing this book just so people know I have read it and I therefore will get other Christmas presents instead.
The strange thing though, is that while rugby is at the centre of this novel, it does not end there. I expected the claustrophobic, monotonous village realism of Objective 1 funded Wales but what was so surprising and enjoyable was the scope of Butler’s novel.
Yes, there is rugby; yes, the hero is Gonzo Davies; yes, he is from a post-industrial village atop the South Wales valleys; and yes, we follow his journey from a small community to the heights of international rugby and back down to the challenges of his return home. However, Butler has infused this tale with so much more. The tale heads back to depression hit 1930s’ Wales, the mountains of the Pyrenees during the Spanish Civil War and the beaches of Dunkirk. The story has communists, football hooligans, fascists, vicars… hell, it’s even got cross dressing young farmers from Carmarthen. Bomb blasts, hooliganism, murder, and political intrigue: this is a big novel.
Butler’s knowledge of Wales, its landscape, both political and geographical shines through. From beginning to end there are nods to its people and their differences, its institutions and its history and the story is better because of it. The knowledge imbues Butler’s more far-fetched parts of the book with a realism that ensures the read is believable and enjoyable.
The story is based around Gonzo Davies and the people who step in, out and around his life from his early days as a school dosser to his life as a professional rugby player living in Cardiff Bay and finally working with his best mate, Capper, doing up houses at the top of the valley. His love life and friendships bring him into contact with unsavoury characters, politics and violence. There is, of course a villain in this tale – actually, there are quite a few. The main one, developed slowly from introduction onwards and gladly, by the end there was no ambiguity, it’s a baddie you would really want to punch in the face.
The twists and turns weave together but near the culmination it does feel like less care was given to detail than beginnings of the story. The national events that happen throughout in tandem with Gonzo’s story do actually end with a bang but not the one I expected or wanted.
The back cover claims this is a story for all those who love rugby but adds in brackets: ‘and for all those who hate’ the sport, but that does not ring true. It feels like it is marketed towards the rugby-loving population alone and that’s a shame because it probably would have hit its target audience regardless and the rugby-centred marketing for Butler’s début may mean some people will be turned off. Should anyone from outside of the target market do pick it up, they will find a pacey and clever novel with an edge that maintains interest throughout.
Eddie Butler is celebrated amongst sections of the rugby loving world as a commentator of note. Although there are some who would disagree, he never strays from asking hard questions, stays away from the clichéd, and delivers his thoughts, whether in the lead up to the big game or in his Sunday column, with thought and panache. He does the same with The Head of Gonzo Davies which will hopefully ensure that his foray into novel writing will not be his last.