Ross Raisin’s exceptional new novel addresses and overturns these preconceptions and conventional notions of masculinity in the most unexpected and sophisticated fashion. And, as with most sports novels, it’s not really about sport. It’s about ambition, friendship, rivalry, talent, and how early potential always meets the implacable wall of adult reality. Also, it’s about the love that still dare not speak its name ... Raisin adumbrates Tom’s sexual awakening as sensitively as Alan Hollinghurst, as lubriciously as Edmund White. Not since Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain has there been a better portrayal of a conflicted male sexuality ... Raisin forcefully explores notions of normative masculinity, without censure or preaching ... the book presents a brave and subtle portrait of a soul in torment. It’s a winner.
This is a bold novel, one that confronts and inhabits a distinctly British masculine unease ... A Natural is overtly concerned with shame. It picks at the conflict between socially conditioned masculinity and gay desire. As is noticeable in the sex scenes between Tom and Liam, this is a space in which pleasure is seemingly impossible...For about a third of the novel, this feels uncomfortable. Raisin risks diluting queer experience to a washed-out sadness. In emphasizing shame over pleasure, he gave this reader concern that a distinctly heteronormative gaze was being manipulated...As the book progresses, though, Raisin’s careful path through self-imposed pitfalls becomes clear. The way is lit by his keen perceptions; the novel suggests the frustrations that arise when lived experience fails to align with what was imagined, and analyzes the gap between spectatorship and participation ... What enables Raisin to navigate such fraught terrain is his deep and unwavering empathy for others, and an ability to find flashes of beauty in life’s unforgiving ugliness. His language might be spare, but his turn of phrase is strikingly elegant ... If Raisin has chosen to focus on that which stifles rather than frees us, he has done so to demonstrate precisely why we need all the things that society and circumstance suppress.
Raisin haunts his characters with ghosts of social propriety. They are all troubled by what is expected of them; to be mothers, fathers, breadwinners; nuclear homes emblazoned with the comfort of heterosexuality. What is most gut wrenching about A Natural is Raisin’s 20/20 vision of masculinity’s demands; it represses, contorts and sublimates each challenger. These characters are bottled up with desires outside the social norm and the focus on genital predilection erodes their well-being. Duality is a ferocious thing. Tom struggles with his private versus public self. He is a canon with a wick that burns as quick as it is replaced. Raisin steers a glimmering course with terrific restraint in this novel that, like a soccer field, demands full attention to detail.