I love that the Vogel winner is now published the day after the winner is announced. There was, I think, a tendency for the news to be announced and then forgotten under the old system, but now, with the information fresh in our minds, we can go and buy the book the next day. I had at least three customers at work looking for Eleven Seasons the day after the announcement this year, and I was able to palm it off to them immediately.
Jason Dalton loves the Hawthorn Hawks, his local footy team. He’s also a natural player, and despite the protestations of his mother, plays in the local junior teams. As he grows up, though, football becomes a divisive figure in his relationship with his mother, and more and more, he is drawn to a particular crowd of footy players his mother views as less than ideal role models. When their argument comes to a head, and his mother tells him a shocking family secret, Jason only has one option. Run away.
I should start this review by pointing out that I know jack-shit about AFL. Not only am I not from Victoria, but I have little to no interest in most codes of football. Nothing personal – I just don’t get the appeal of lots of sweaty, scantily clad men running around grabbing each other on an often muddy circle of grass. Which is problematic when I read a book which wears its love of AFL on its sleeve. Fortunately, and this is probably the sign of a good writer, Carter makes the story both reliant upon the sport and completely separate. He has a tendency to waffle on about floating drop punts (WHAT EVEN IS THAT?) in his descriptions of the games Jason plays, but for those of us less interested, it’s fairly easy to gloss over some paragraphs before we get back to some meatier character moments.
We rush through Jason’s formative years, but in many ways, this allows Carter to carve off any superfluous incidents and text, giving us a very clear through line. It’s worrying to see just how easy it is for Jason to go over to the dark side, as it were, getting in with the wrong crowd of kids, arguably because his mother is never home to tell him otherwise. No development or step ever seems forced – it’s all presented very logically and clearly, and though we start with an eight year old Jason hanging out with his slightly nerdy best friend, all of a sudden we find him smoking behind the bike shed in high school with a group of young boys that could politely be described as delinquents.
It’s a testament to Carter’s skill that I didn’t want to punch Jason in the face by the end of the novel, because I certainly did for a long time. I know that teenagers are, almost without fail, self-absorbed little shits, but Jason manages to take it to a whole new level. There are, of course, reasons for this. His mother is never home, and without any kind of role model – male or female – he gravitates towards people he thinks are going to give him what he wants, and inevitably, these are not-very-nice people. There’s some almost twee redemption at the end, and it’s almost enough to forgive Jason his many, many sins. Almost.
As Jason grows up, it becomes apparent that football is not just window dressing for the, arguably, simpler coming-of-age story at the heart of the novel. His love of football is contrasted with his mother’s seemingly complete disinterest in the entire affair, and allows for some nice dramatic tension. For a long time, I could sympathise with her – all codes of football are dangerous, and her concern for her son’s safety seemed very in character. As Jason grows up, she also becomes concerned with the kind of people playing with him – again, a legitimate concern, given the situations professional footballers in Australia seem to put themselves in almost every week. And there is a hint that Jason himself could have been caught up in this ridiculous lifestyle, but he always stops himself from going too far. But when the long-promised family secret is revealed, her apathy towards football begins to make a lot more sense.
Does Australian literature need another examination of what makes the beer-guzzling, footy-loving, female-hating Australian male tick? To be honest, probably not. We talk a lot today about crossover fiction – books primarily designed for a young adult audience that are taken up with gusto by adult readers, and Eleven Seasons, in many ways, is part of that movement. I would have no trouble recommending this to reluctant teen male readers, though there are some more subtle messages that will be enjoyed by more adult readers as well.