Willowman by Inga Simpson

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

The author, Inga Simpson, says that the book came about from a challenge in a 2015 article entitled ‘Just not Cricket: Where are the Great Australian Cricket Novels?’ (401). I must admit I was not immediately drawn to this story as I am not a dedicated cricket fan. However, once I started reading, I became fascinated. The writing style is easy-flowing, humorous, informative, full of beautiful similes and in some parts, one might even say, full of reverence. The reader is told on page four, ‘The collective name for willows is a prayer. And reverence is warranted’.

This book certainly describes the passion with which some people hold the sport of cricket. For a young player the ‘innings, the game, the ground – it was the whole universe, with him at the centre’ (21). For the spectator it’s ‘the orchestra of leather meeting willow, the whoop and huddle of players when a wicket falls, and the generous applause each time a player hits a boundary, takes a wicket or reaches a milestone, no matter which side they are on’ (12). The thrill for a willowman involves choosing the best piece of cleft, from their sound and feel, knowing that the best bats just have something about them that cannot be predicted or explained (13).

The book is divided into five sections, mainly to fit the cricket theme. These are The Toss, Morning Session, Afternoon Session, with a quote from Michael Clark as a Eulogy to his mate Phillip Hughes, Final Session and Close of Play. Throughout these pages much history about the game of cricket and some memorable players, can be found.

The novel is a work of fiction yet reads like non-fiction. The story is about a mature cricket bat maker (willowman), with a skill handed down through generations of willow makers in England, who sets about growing his own trees, for bats he is making in Australia. The encounter feels very personal. This storyline is alternated with the story of a young Queensland cricketer who from an early age is believed to be ‘That once-in-a-generation player’ (15).

The willowman has long had the dream of designing the perfect bat for a promising new batter. To have a hand in their destiny, is every maker’s dream. In this story the reader is taken through the intricacies of making a cricket bat and learns the vocabulary of this craft. While he works on this special bat, the craftsman listens to the cricket commentary on his radio. When the excitement level in the game is low that is the time for the artisan to use his machinery.

I loved the way that the author described aspects in creating a cricket bat with such mystical qualities and in almost human terms. The reader is told that the willow cleft from which the bat is made needs to be expressed in the right shape and matched to the right player. Even then it’s one-part mystery. When it is right ‘something mystic can happen’. It is a rare moment ‘of transcendence’ (28). The more love and tradition, the more time the artisans’ hands spend caressing the willow, the more chance there is for magic to happen (67).

By about a third of the way through the story, my interest in the actual games of cricket began to wane although I recognised many of the names of the players mentioned. But I think the author might have anticipated that this could happen, and so other storylines within the book began to take my interest.

I had followed the young cricketer’s journey through local and district games, playing up into older teams, state games and on to international games, with the bat that he had received from the willowman still in centre focus. From here on my focus was more on the budding cricketer’s romance and his sister’s rise as a cricketer. Also, the bat-maker’s journey through his divorce and his relationship with his daughter and his reconnection with many of his friends. He had avoided them in the period he was grappling with his personal problems where he thought he might have to sell his beloved home and plantation of willow trees.

The author has the unique ability to meld all of the storylines seamlessly together. Even the willowman’s love of classical music and ability to play the oboe fit seamlessly. ‘Like cricket, playing the oboe depends on doing the basics well’ (269). ‘Like a cricket bat, (the instrument is) here for a beautiful time, not a long time. They’re meant to be played’ (270).

What I particularly enjoyed were the little gems that also found their way into the story. Talking about Mozart’s ‘Oboe Concerto in C Major’, the reader is informed that ‘When Mozart reworked it for flute, the original version was lost’.  It took Alfred Einstein ‘to put two and two together, concluding that the concert was originally intended for the oboe’ (217). Also, did you know that the saying ‘time to sally forth’ also has links to cricket because the word ‘sally’ is from the Latin word for willow (74) and that the overarm bowl was introduced by women cricketers so their arms would not get tangled in their garments.

This is a beautifully crafted story with interest for a large range of readers. The characters are likeable, and the writing has beautiful imagery. I believe that Inga Simpson has fulfilled the challenge which was the impetus for this book as she says ‘Cricket is a time machine, a way of travelling through history, seeing the world (253). I have certainly been transported to several different countries through this story.

The special bat remained prominent right through to the end of the story, even if it might have changed hands. ‘Harrow was using the old Reader bat for the occasion, a deep divot worn in its face…It was yellowed, a few fine cracks in the face, but still beautiful. Some kind of magic at work that it didn’t really age. In the soft English sun, the bat was golden, containing all the hope and possibilities of the game’ (397).



By Inga Simpson

Hachette Australia

ISBN: 978-0-7336-3455-0

$32.99; 416pp

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