A coming-of-age story of grief, family conflicts and first love, all in the dramatic background of sport
When one thinks of sports books, the most common culprits are biographies, review of sports events, record books, coaching manuals, and other such ‘regular’ sporty stuff. Sports fiction is a genre quite unheard of, especially in this part of the world.
Although most sports novels revolve around popular American sports like baseball, ice hockey, soccer, and basketball, quite a lot of fiction has been written on cricket as well -- arguably the most popular sport in Pakistan. Interestingly, there is not a lot of fiction involving hockey -- which is the national game of Pakistan. Apart from Hockey Term at Trebizon Boarding School, a novel written for school girls, nothing else comes to mind that could even remotely be considered as hockey fiction.
British author FJ Campbell, a hockey player himself, came up with No Number Nine last year-- a novel told in the background of hockey. Among his other works is The Islanders -- a novel about young adults at a boarding school and two soon to be published novels Enjoy the Silence and The Wanderers.
No Number Nine is the story of an English girl Pip Mitchell, a hockey player who plays for England under 16s. She lives with her parents, who both are professional hockey coaches and her sister Holly -- a hockey Olympian -- who means the world to her.
The story takes a dramatic turn when Holly dies after being hit by a ball during a hockey match and Pip finds herself falling in love with Holly’s husband, Troy who comes over to stay at their place after his wife’s death. After a little while, Troy’s contract gets terminated and he moves back to Australia. Pip, now haunted by her sister’s memories and needing money to join Troy in Australia lands a job of an au pair in Germany.
Pip puts her life on hold for two years in order to erase memories of her late sister. She stops playing hockey and attempts starting a new life with her new job in a strange country. But as luck would have it, the two boys she is in charge of are regular hockey players at a local club and if that was not enough, their elder brothers are members of the German national hockey team.
We get to meet all sorts of characters at the clubhouse where the kids go to play in the small German town. The elder brothers, Leo and Bill’s, engagements with the German national team take the readers to the actual venues of mega-events such as the Champions Trophy events of that period i.e. 1995- 2000. There are some mentions of Pakistani hockey players in the novel, notably Sohail Abbas who is mentioned as "a killer drag flick that’ll take your head off". Some renowned hockey coaches of the era are mentioned in the novel as well.
As the story unfolds, Pip falls in love with Leo, one of the elder brothers of the kids she’s looking after, but they put the relationship on hold for three months i.e. after the 2000 Olympics. She doesn’t, however, enjoy a particularly good standing with the boys’ mother who wants to sack her. Leo doesn’t know that Pip once had a thing for Troy, the star Australian player and her late sister’s husband.
However, things change at the Sydney Olympics 2000 where Pip meets many of her old acquaintances from all over the world including Troy.The match between Germany against Troy Costa’s Australia is covered in a sensational manner. It becomes more interesting as Pip discovers that watching Leo play on the field ignites the same kind of feelings in her as she felt when she used to watch her late sister play.
The readers also get to understand the philosophy behind the book’s title: No Number Nine. Moments before their match against Australia, the Great Britain hockey team announce, in a televised ceremony, that they would be retiring the number nine shirt -- the official shirt of Pip’s late sister, Holly.
No Number Nine is a memorable sports novel that also has an immense potential to be turned into a movie. This novel keeps you thoroughly engaged with twists and dramas and can make for a wonderful gift, not only for hockey lovers and sports buffs but also for those who are just looking for good fiction.
No Number Nine
Author: FJ Campbell
Publisher: FJ Campbell, 2019
Pages: 390 (Paperback)