The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Living in rural Shropshire (almost North Wales) I do not know much about baseball. In fact, I think it would be quite safe to say that I know nothing, other than I've heard of the expression 'the bottom of the ninth'. But then again that could be from somewhere else. However, upon picking this book up in the sale box at The Works (read: for next to nothing) something caught my eye.
The blurb details the five main characters that the book focuses on: Henry Skrimshander, Mike Schwartz, Owen Dunne, Guert Affenlight and Pella Affenlight. One thing is clear, something happens that alters their lives forever.
As I started to read this book I must admit I found it a bit much, lots of baseball lingo, all of which went straight over my head. The first character we meet is Mike, who spots Henry's talent on the field at a baseball game and recruits him to Westish College, where Mike himself is on the baseball team, and the football team and any other team you can think of. Owen is introduced as Henry's room mate. Guert Affenlight is the president of Westish College and Pella is his daughter. We are introduced to the characters gradually which I think is a stroke of genius on the author's part as it can be overwhelming to meet everyone important at once, especially when they have such complicated (albeit fantastic) names as these.
It was a slow start for me, as the beginning mainly focuses on Schwartz and Henry and a lot of baseball. Although I found the training interesting, I struggled to visualise the baseball games as I don't know the different positions or moves. But as Guert is introduced, the story really comes into its own. Guert was probably my favourite character, he has so many layers and so much history. I would have liked to know more about his past and his relationship with Pella's mother, but we are just given a brief summary.
All the intertwining relationships make for brilliant reading. Chad Harbach's speciality really is characters. Every single one of them was individual, unique, had many layers. They felt so real that I could meet them in the street. In fact, I would like to meet them. They had lots of different human qualities, which I myself could identify with.
The setting and the way he described the college was also exquisite. Being at university at the moment I have some idea of college life and the author made it believable, life like and actually a place that I wanted to be. Unfortunately, after lots of googling I have discovered the college is completely fictional, although you can buy a Westish Harpooners t-shirt!
The most clear thing is that Chad Harbach really knows his baseball. And as I read, and the team progressed, I became more and more excited for them. When it came to the final match (? game?) I was really rooting for the team. Having said that, my only negative is that I struggled to keep track of the other baseball players. Not only did they have names, they have nicknames and I could never remember which one was which. However, they're not really an integral part of the story.
There are lots of twists and turns, some I saw coming, others I definitely did not. But that is the beauty of this book. It took me almost a month to read, but for once, I really didn't mind. I enjoyed being swept away into this world and learning about the characters and the challenges they overcome. I look forward to reading more Chad Harbach in the future.
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