Danny Garvey is like a TARDIS. Its dimensions are so much greater on the inside. You think it’s going to be one of those stoic northern novels of the 1960s, with goalposts for a backdrop, but it delivers a lot more: the explosive joy of an undeserved win and the hopes of new starts, balanced by the belief that ‘the course is set’ and by punches to the gut imagined and real. The characters are trapped, for all kinds of reasons. Some try to escape from their circumstances or their demons. Of those, a few may succeed. And one of those, we think, may be Garvey himself.
Danny Garvey is a football coach bouncing around Scotland’s junior teams. He was, once, nearly a contender. Now he’s returning to Barshaw Bridge, still home to most of his remaining family (brother Raymond is in prison), to run their local team. He has unfinished business: some of it’s in the village but some of it’s in his head. He gathers together a team of unlikelies and takes them on a cup run, while doing gardening work for a neighbour whose back story is uncertain. We think that this is going to be a tale of triumph, the prodigal returning to make his greatest contribution to his old home town. We are wrong.
The men and women of Barshaw Bridge don’t often get their tale told. They’re often portrayed, in novels like this, as one- or two-dimensional cartoons. And, in fairness, we hear very little in this novel about the inner lives of most of the villagers: if they’re not plastered in the pub, they’re swearing in the pub or whooping it up at an Ann Summers Party. There’s a huge amount of hurt, tradition and a suffocating culture based on loyalty and superstition but Ross allows the lead characters to begin to peel the layers away. Some can’t or won’t, but Ross has them talk about it anyway. He gives us five narrative voices, which helps us begin to notice that things aren’t quite what we first thought. Danny narrates throughout, but there are chapters in which each of Uncle Higgy, nephew Damo, sister-in-law and love interest Nancy and brother Raymond share their inner thoughts. For most of the book we won’t be interested in hearing from Raymond: he’s one-dimensional, vile and violent, and the twist isn’t that he’s suddenly likeable…but we come away from the book wanting to know a little bit more about his point of view. Raymond has as many dimensions, it turns out, as almost anyone else.
But the most complex inner voice is given to Danny. Ross cheats the hell out of this: Danny does a mixtape for Nancy (it’s available on Spotify) to give his thoughts an extra medium. He gets the majority of the monologues which are in standard English whereas the main dialogue, through which we hear most of the other voices, are in a particularly pungent vernacular. He’s set up as the hero. We like him and make excuses for his own bad behaviour, even once there’s some evidence that he isn’t the reliable narrator that we first assumed. And then Ross does the twist and we are beached. And we learn that Nancy was wrong, the course was not set; it was dangerous to think in those terms. We think about the minor characters, who are almost left to their own devices in the last scenes (were they always left to their own devices?) who use sport as a way to gain control of their lives.
I have not, yet, in the text of this review, used the full name of the novel. It is a nod to a football chant but it is so much more. For, at the end, despite the mixtape and monologues and the attention, we never really know Danny Garvey. What was it like to be him, a man apart – for his talent and for his temperament – from his family and from his community? We will never really know. Ross keeps us guessing, long after the final page. In fact, you could say that we know even less than we did in the beginning, yet we are richer for it. You could call it a cup upset, but this beautiful, unusual, violent and heartening novel deserves better than a football cliché, Brian.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.