Calling myself a ‘football fan’ is a stretch.
Being a general sports fan, playing sports, and talking about sports with similar people, I’ve absorbed a lot through osmosis over the years. Particularly from my football obsessed younger brothers before they discovered girls.
Even living in London for years, I’ve only very recently begun to make a bit of effort to follow the sport in any meaningful way. I think I can comfortably call myself a casual at this point. As much as it hurts to assign myself that label, I’m gonna be honest, that’s as far as I’m getting.
So why did I read a football book?
Ashley Hickson-Lovence, the author of “Your Show”, is an alumni of the MA programme I’m at the tail-end of right now, and returned to City for a book launch event last month. Some friends and I – most of us not fussed about football – attended, only one of us intending to actually buy the book at the end.
But then we listened to a Q&A with Hickson-Lovence where he answered questions about the process behind the book, then heard him read excerpts of the 2nd-person, poetic style he wrote it in. And he managed to hook me and few other casuals into buying his book.
Yes, that was not a typo, this entire book is written in the 2nd-person perspective. Hickson-Lovence ‘speaks to’ Uriah Rennie, a Jamaican-born Black man raised in Sheffield, the 1st Black man to referee in the Premier League. “Your Show” is Rennie’s story…sort of. We’ll get to that.
The thing that will stick with me having now finished “Your Show” is the writing style. There are plenty of books ‘written in 2nd person’, where more often than not the narration is distanced enough for the reader to forget. In the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books or even Henry James’ “A Turn of the Screw”, the perspective is an afterthought, used as a nice way to cap-off chapters, create ambiguity, or provide exposition.
That is not the case here. I didn’t crunch the numbers, but I can safely say the 1st word of around half of the paragraphs in “Your Show” start with ‘you’ or ‘your’.
That probably sounds incredibly grating. Somehow, it’s not. Hickson-Lovence balances out the jarring effect of the 2nd-person with a rhythmic, prose-poetry narrative voice that’s really engaging.
That might sound even more grating to you. I can’t really fault anyone for feeling that way – it’s certainly a very niche style. For me, it really lifted what was otherwise a middling biography.
Hickson-Lovence’s writing craft is unfortunately let down by ‘plot’ choices. Which may seem strange to say about a fictionalized biography. It’s an odd comparison, I know, but I feel similarly about this book as I do about the Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
For someone who enjoys Queen’s megahits and maybe one album, that movie was probably great. For me, (who at age 13 found Freddie Mercury incredibly fascinating and watched and read everything I could find about the legendary frontman) it glossed over most of what made Mercury interesting, favoring the glamour of his flash & debauchery instead of his talent & idiosyncrasies.
As a casual football fan who knows megastars and a few national team stand-outs, I had no idea Uriah Rennie existed until I went to that book launch event. I still don’t feel like I know much about him after reading “Your Show”.
We get very little of Rennie’s life off of the pitch. A couple early chapters tell the story of his life before he was a referee, but they’re quite brief. Narratively, that segment of “Your Show” feels rushed and messy. Pieces of Rennie’s upbringing are cherry-picked and thrown at the reader with no real sense of progression. His wife and children are mentioned, in passing, twice.
The narrative barely touches on Rennie’s experiences of racism as a referee or just as a Black man living in England. When it does, the instances are treated like footnotes on a box score.
In a vacuum, that’s totally fine. It’s clear Rennie & Hickson-Lovence made a deliberate choice to keep racism from being the lens through which Rennie’s entire life & career is viewed. An approach I think anyone would appreciate in the telling of their story.
But with very little about the man’s real life in the book, and very little depth given to his professional career, things quickly start to feel hollow.
A huge portion of the book is re-tellings of Rennie refereeing individual matches. At first, these are exciting, especially with Hickson-Lovence’s masterful control of pace. Even for a casual who has no idea who a lot of these now retired footballers are, the match action is captured well enough that you get a real sense of the atmosphere and tension.
By the time you get halfway through “Your Show” these scenes are incredibly repetitive. This is clearly intentional to some extent, as even Hickson-Lovence’s word choice and lyrical rhythm is purposefully copied chapter to chapter.
I understand – and don’t necessarily disagree with – the intent behind this repetition. Across an entire novel it just becomes boring. I’m sure lifelong football fans will get more out of these scenes than I did, but I think even if I knew more of these names, I would’ve felt the same. Perhaps not as early on in the book.
In the end, the one-of-a-kind style that elevates this book is somehow the same thing that drags it down.
The 2nd-person perspective really limits the narrative. It’s not only hard for Hickson-Lovence to satisfyingly enter Rennie’s mind, you get very little sense of scope of anything outside of Rennie’s time on the pitch.
There’s nothing anchoring the ‘plot’ to make me care, even if I’m being entertained. I sort of want Uriah to achieve his dream of refereeing the FA cup final, but (SPOILERS, I guess, you can just Google this) when he never does, I don’t really feel anything. Intentional or not, his story has been reduced to this one ambition, and such a one-dimensional story doesn’t stir up any emotion for me.
If you’re a real football fan I would recommend this book. If you enjoy reading unique writing styles I would recommend this book. If you’re a referee of any kind, I would recommend this book.
For anyone else, it is undeniably entertaining, stylistically impressive & ambitious. I just wish some of that ambition had been saved for the story itself.