- The Washington Times - Friday, February 5, 2010

THE RULES OF PLAY

By Jennie Walker

Soho Press, $20, 152 pages

REVIEWED BY CORINNA LOTHAR

There is no Jennie Walker. Jennie Walker is the pseudonym for English award-winning poet Charles Boyle, whose witty novella was first published in Britain under the title “24 for 3,” a title referring to that oh-so-British game, cricket. That the author is a poet comes as no surprise to readers of this entertaining musing on how games are played - be they games of skill, of life or of love.

Can rules of fidelity in marriage, responsibility to family, the right to happiness or the rules of cricket itself be changed depending on circumstances? These are the questions that the unnamed narrator of “The Rules of Play” asks in the course of five days during which England and India compete in a cricket game.

The novella opens with the beginning of the match, the game whose complicated rules are questioned. As the game begins, the narrator is lying in bed with her lover, whom she identifies only as “the loss adjuster.” (In America, he would be called an insurance adjuster.) She asks him to explain the rules of cricket to her. He refuses. “Explanations are pointless. … Isn’t mystery better? Not knowing all the answers.”

But explanations of the rules are forthcoming, explanations that can be taken literally or as a metaphor for relationships in life and/or love: “Nothing happens, much. Then something does. Then nothing again, or - rarely - something else. Then nothing and so on and so on until it becomes hard to perceive any difference between nothing and something.”

The narrator is married to methodical, careful Alan whose style is “dicing vegetables and measuring a teaspoonful of this and half one of that… ” They share a house with Alan’s 16-year-old son, Selwyn, and a young Polish woman, Agnieszka, an au pair who stayed on.

The narrator has two part-time jobs, one as a translator (her father was Spanish), and the other as a teacher of the history of science in an art college, which is like “teaching atheism in a seminary, or pot-holing to airline pilots.” She adores her stepson, who has moved on from the childhood intimacy he shared with the narrator to search for an identity of his own.

“It wasn’t Alan I fell in love with but Selwyn … [He] bowled me over. After years of working my guts out at this thing called human relationships, he taught me how to play.” She loves him totally and absolutely. He is her son and, as the novella begins, he is missing.

During the five days of the match, the narrator divides her time between the loss adjuster, whom she loves, and her home, which bores her. “I think of Alan and me sitting at the kitchen table having one of our fumbling arguments, with Selwyn as spectator. It doesn’t matter what it’s about: Do we go by Tube or take the car, … how much can you still like someone if they believe in God or send their children to private schools. When one of us is on top form, it might be diverting. When both of us are, it’s entertaining, for us too. If it’s a flat pitch and the ball isn’t turning and we’re just going through the motions, [Selwyn] walks out.”

Despite her boredom, “[t]here are some days, … which are so perfect they seem to have been composed by Scarlatti, but many more days that are written by a monkey at a typewriter.” Selwyn turns up in an unexpected place. He is ambivalent about wanting the narrator to stay at home, yet understanding the importance of love.

The narrator may not be able to find a solution; her question is relevant: “If everyone agrees, can you change the rules? What happens if the loss adjuster has a terrible car accident and loses both legs, or if I forget his telephone number.”

“The Rules of Play” is a playful work, full of unexpected events. While only the narrator’s persona is explored, the ideas in this little book are tantalizing. The rules of the games played on the field, in the household and in bed mingle irony with pragmatism sprinkled with tongue-in-cheek humor. “Jennie Walker” gives all her characters names, except for the gypsy card shark who cheats (but does not trick) Selwyn, the narrator and the loss adjuster, who does have a name but the narrator “do[esn’t] want to use it in case it breaks.” Perhaps rules cannot be broken and dreamers must be protected. Perhaps, as the loss adjuster suggests, “not knowing all the answers” is best.

There is something absurdly appropriate in that it is Mick Jagger’s phrase of praise which appears on the cover of the book: “Very original … I loved it.” How fitting too that the author changed his sex - on paper - for this surrealist romp on the meaning of life, love, passion and cricket.

Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.


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