***Selection Day

Mumbai, cricket

photo: David Brossard, creative commons license

By Aravind Adiga, narrated by Sartaj Garewal – Adiga’s 2017 novel purports to be about two brothers, growing up in a Mumbai slum, under the obsessive protection of their cricket-crazy father—a helicopter parent with a swinging cricket bat for a rotor blade. Adiga’s debut novel The White Tiger was such a witty, penetrating exploration of economics and capitalism and how they affect the average person (and a winner of the Man Booker Prize) that I eagerly awaited this one. If he can make economics entertaining, cricket should be a snap, right?

To read the book, it thankfully isn’t necessary to understand cricket’s impenetrable mysteries. The novel is in essence a coming-of-age story, a story of when to hold on to parental values and when to abandon them, of the choices that come the boys’ way and what they do with them, and the intrusions of fate.

There are some wonderful characters: the boys Radha Kumar and his principal rival in cricket and in life, his younger brother Manju, their clueless dad—the lowly chutney salesman Mohan—and the local cricket talent scout Tommy Sir, among many others. Years of effort are guiding the boys’ efforts to “selection day,” when just a couple of up-and-coming 17-year-olds will be chosen to play for Bombay Cricket. That one day will make the boys’ future or break their father’s heart. Possibly both.

One of the best aspects of the book is the relationship between the boys. Said Carmela Ciuraru in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Adiga superbly captures the intimacy between the two brothers, as they bicker, tease and protect each other” and as Manju struggles with his sexuality. Also entertaining were the cricket officials’ efforts to keep the father away from the playing fields. Anyone who’s been especially close to a brother or who’s observed the obsessive parents at their children’s sporting events can identify with the dilemmas of this striving family. Again, says Ciuraru, Adiga’s take is “both satirical and affectionate as he shows how the sport is less a means of lifting gifted kids out of poverty than reinforcing boundaries of privilege in rather ruthless ways.”

The book begins three years before the Selection Day in which Radha will participate and a short concluding section takes place eleven years later. As a tremendous fan of audio books, I was quite disappointed in the narration by Sartaj Garewal and believe it is at least partly responsible for my not becoming fully engaged with this book. Read a print version.

****You Will Know Me

You Will Know Me, gymnast

photo: Steven Rasmussen, creative commons license

By Megan Abbott, narrated by Lauren Fortgang – Publication of this new psychological thriller about a family’s sacrifices in producing an elite gymnast was well-timed to coincide with the Olympics and the public’s quadrennial fixation on little girls’ determination to fly. Told almost entirely from the point of view of American gymnast Devon Knox’s mother Katie, this family’s ties only bind tighter when external events threaten.

Thirteen-year-old Devon is on what seems to be a straight path to athletic accomplishment. Katie and her husband Eric have taken a second mortgage to support her training, the competition fees, the $200 leotards. Coach Teddy Belfour is confident, the booster club of BelStar parents pitches in to make expensive upgrades to the practice gym, Coach T brings on his niece Hailey to help with the younger girls. And Devon’s studious younger brother Drew seems willing to put his childhood on permanent hold so that evenings and weekends can be spent at Devon’s practice sessions, driving her to competitions, and participating in booster club events.

In short, Devon’s gymnastics is their life. As Katie says, “When you have an extraordinary child, you’ll do anything for her.” While nothing in the backstory of any of the current crop of elite gymnasts suggests the pathology that overtakes the Knox family, single-minded commitment, extreme sacrifice, and unshakable determination are par for the course.

Abbott, winner of multiple awards in the mystery/thriller domain, convincingly portrays the emotional temperature of the gym, its sounds and smells, the chalk-dust thickness to the air. When Devon practices, you are with her, you feel the adrenaline rush Katie does, watching. You understand the sacrifices, as well as how the family’s fixation is inhibiting the capacity to make moral choices.

For the Knox family, the extent of those sacrifices and choices becomes clear only after Hailey’s handsome boyfriend Ryan Beck comes on the scene. Ryan stirs a stewpot of emotions among girls trained to hold in their feelings, like diminutive adults, and moms who flirt and snipe like adolescents. His presence, then his absence, tests them all when he’s killed in an unexplained hit-and-run accident.

Abbott has divided the novel into parts, each introduced with a quote from Nadia Comaneci’s Letters to a Young Gymnast. This is the epigram for section IV: “But I sometimes wonder, to this day, if courage is just another word for desperation.”

Narrator Lauren Fortgang has recorded some 150 audiobooks and does an excellent job here, especially with the large number of teen girls. I especially admired her wispy Lacey Weaver, Devon’s teammate, whose voice is so light it seems about to float away, taking poor Lacey with it. She gives brother Drew a lisp that never becomes cartoonish, but immediately distinguishes him from the girls.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.