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"The Mermaid's Child" by Jo Baker
In this fantastical novel, the acclaimed author of "Longbourn" brings us the magical story of a young girl in search of her mother - who just might be a mermaid.
"The Other Kingdom" is a refreshing reminder of the days before world-class sport became a cold, professional exercise in earning money. It is unashamedly elitist, socially and intellectually as well as in terms of athletics, in a way that unmistakeably dates it. The protagonist's life, overshadowed by the reputation of a world-famous father, strikes an uneasy balance between his running, his girl friend, and his study of the German Sturm und Drang poets with their quest for heroism. At first glance, some of the athletics background looks to have been copied from real life - until you realize that this book was published in 1964, about the time of the Tokyo Olympics. So the runner who misses an Olympic medal by sprinting too soon, but later gets a European title, is not Michel Jazy: that didn't happen till 1966! Another amusing touch is the cover picture, which shows the young Herb Elliott. (If you're going to borrow from real life, why not borrow the best?)
Courtesy of Amazon, you can read the first few pages here. Note how skilfully the author introduces all the main characters while describing a training run. This is easily the best account I have ever read of how it feels to run far faster than you ever thought possible. Something similar happened to Jim Ryun when he "unintentionally" broke the world record for the half-mile while competing in a collegiate event in 1966, leaving world-class rivals far behind without any particular effort. Ryun took nearly five seconds off his personal best that day, and soon after broke the world record for the mile.
Bottom line: it's not a pure running story, by a long chalk. Instead, it shows convincingly how world-class sporting achievement must be rooted in a person's whole life.
Telling the tale of Colin Wornock, an Irish runner striving to break into the upper reaches of international track, The Other Kingdom does what many other books about running does not, it goes past just the running aspect of the characters life. The book has a number of sub plots that all interwind, that of Colin's mind, his realationship with his more exprienced lover, that with a family friend who doubles as an analyzing proffesor, his training partners and finaly his fiesty coach. At times the plot can be weighted down with hypothectical conversation about the nature of heroism and pushing oneselves but all in all serves a greater purpose of Colin's final victory over himself.
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I read this book hot on the heels of another book on running, The Olympian, by Brian Glanville. Neither is a great book but this rates higher for me by virtue of its loftier reach and its lack of cynicism. (Somehow there is often a sordid undertone to Glanville's fiction).
One fascination for an Irish person like me is that it predates the Troubles in Northern Ireland: to read all those place names and streets in Belfast and surroundings without reference to bombs and hatred is refreshing and almost other-worldly. Once it was an innocent place, pre-occupied like most places with the quotidien, the everyday. It can be again.
I'm not sure that I believed that a man who is so reflective and beyond what surrounds him would be that successful an athlete but who's to know? Certainly he is a rich and priviledged young man, acknowledged in the writing, to the point where you wish he actually had to do something to get by.
The pieces on training with his friends and rivals are well done, the romance very believable, the love of the Irish countryside very authentic. The race descriptions though not the buildups are slightly flat to me. Overall a worthy and decent novel but way behind the definitive book of fiction on running: Once a Runner.
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