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Godwin by Joseph O’Neill: Novel of narrative flair uses football in Africa as a prism

New York-based Corkman explores world of intersecting crises with humour and humanity

Joseph O'Neill is a natural storyteller and his flair for winding narratives is on display in Godwin. There are many stories within stories in its complex, nimble and sometimes dazzling structure. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty
Godwin
Author: Joseph O’Neill
ISBN-13: 978-0008284046
Publisher: 4th Estate
Guideline Price: £16.99

Loyal canine friends? Check. A vibrant depiction of a particular sport and its history? Check. Deft analysis of geopolitics? Check. Dysfunctional families? Check. All of it packed into a highly original comic caper that takes places across continents? Check. Godwin, the new novel from Joseph O’Neill, is at once a reminder of what the author has done so well in previous books and a journey to a new frontier, so to speak, into some of the poorest nations in Africa through the lens of dodgy, if not downright predatory, football scouts.

From this unusual angle, O’Neill expounds on important topics, from the legacy of colonialism, the plights and rights of immigrants, the perils of international business, the questionable ethics of capitalism, to more personal issues of familial neglect and responsibility. The latter is seen through the travails of Mark Wolfe, a married American in his 40s who flies to England to help his half-brother Geoff, an aspiring (read: broke) football scout who has video footage of a superstar in the making, the titular Godwin, a twinkle-toed teenager from Benin.

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With the help of the wily old Frenchman Lefebvre, they set out to find the boy, in what proves a classic adventure narrative with plenty of obstacles along the way, among them, the unfamiliar west African terrain, the brothers’ opportunistic mother Faye and, not least, the persistent scheming and double crossing of all involved. O’Neill has great fun with this, while never losing sight of the ugly mercenary politics that underpin the story.

Born in Cork in 1963, O’Neill lives in New York and teaches at Bard College. He is the author of four previous novels: Netherland, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize; The Dog; This Is the Life; and The Breezes; as well as a memoir, Blood-Dark Track. His short stories have been published in the New Yorker and Harper’s, and his criticism has appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times and Granta, among other publications.

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O’Neill is a natural storyteller, with his flair for winding narratives on display in Godwin. There are many stories within stories in the complex, nimble and sometimes dazzling structure of the book. He has the storyteller’s eye for detail too: the sky of west Africa “is a white sky, the colour of tin”; a man is described as having a “hyperbolic bounce in his step”. Suspense is inbuilt into his style of storytelling, which is to reveal what the mission is and then to delay whether it was successful for as long as he can.

This can be problematic at times, with much of the football action related rather than experienced first-hand. Godwin, for example, only appears in a brief scene or two towards the end of the book, which perhaps reflects the overarching theme of exploitation but nevertheless keeps his apparent talent, and indeed his character, at a remove from the reader.

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A bigger issue is with a second narrative, almost a third of the book, that competes with Mark’s story. This takes place in an office in Pittsburgh where a collective of writers is about to experience a hostile takeover. The narrator of these sections is Mark’s boss, Lakesha, whose voice is brilliantly conceived, witty and incisive and utterly contemporary. It made me long for more of her history and the office machinations she handles so skilfully, leaving the overall impression that although both plots have threads that unite them thematically – systemic racial inequality, the corrupting influence of money and power – they could as easily have made two great novels on their own.

But there is much to enjoy in Godwin as is, for fans of football in particular. O’Neill writes with great flair and authority on the history of the sport, from notorious plane tragedies, to the class dynamics of English football, to the rise of immigrant players in European leagues in the early 1990s. He is equally good on the physicality of the game: “Pace and power you can measure, you can see it; it’s right there in front of you. Quality is another thing altogether… This boy had everything, acceleration, touch, match awareness, courage.”

Throughout, there is the sense we are learning as we read, a whirlwind tour of African politics, office politics and football but, as with the best teachers, O’Neill distracts us with enough drama, humour and humanity to make it feel as if it’s no lesson at all. Godwin shows a world undergoing many overlapping crises – generational, political, environmental, economic. Part football compendium, part workplace manifesto, most of all it’s a warning against the way world works today: “I mean modern stupidity, which is to say, stupidity that’s purposeful and communicable and strangely greedy.”

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts