Novel of the week
Tariq Goddard Sceptre, 288pp, £12.99
Picture this: a few days before Real Madrid play their sworn enemies Barcelona in a vital match next season, Posh walks out on Becks. He of the protean coiffure takes to his bed, so lovelorn that he cannot bring himself to play football. With time against him, Carlos Queiroz (Real Madrid's new coach, who replaced the sacked Vicente del Bosque last month) has to draw on all his managerial wiles to persuade his new star signing to step out on the pitch.
This is the set-up Tariq Goddard invites us to imagine in his new novel, Dynamo. Except that, for Real and Barca in 2003, read Spartak and Dynamo in 1930s Moscow; and, for Victoria and David Beckham, read Katya and Radek. To complicate matters further, Spartak's coach, Copic, is under orders from the Soviet hierarchy to throw the match or face a spell in the Gulag, or worse.
If you aren't interested in football, don't fret - very little of it takes place in this book. Indeed, the only time we see a ball being kicked, Goddard incorrectly has a player pass backwards from the kick-off. So it is probably just as well that he limits himself to one sporting scene in a novel where football is a vehicle for an original and largely enjoyable satire. As in his debut, Homage to a Firing Squad, Goddard uses a traumatic historical episode as a backdrop for an intense personal struggle. In that novel, about a bungled assassination attempt during the Spanish civil war, Goddard's idiosyncratic mix of terror and humour skewed off too often into the surreal. A dense read - clever, but emotionally uninvolving - it was nevertheless shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award. Dynamo is the more accomplished book. The strands of the story are more successfully interwoven, the characters are more sympathetic, and the author's quirky style and vision manage to stay the right side of farcical.
The hero is Copic, a maverick whose revolutionary footballing methods are a symbolic expression of his disaffection with the corruption of Stalin's regime. Spartak, in those days, were the workers' team - formed to represent the members of the leather, textiles and food co-operatives. Their arch-rivals, Dynamo, were the team of the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) and, therefore, of the Communist Party itself. For many thousands of fans, supporting Spartak was the only safe form of dissent. Even in the labour camps, prisoners would gather round radio sets to cheer them on.
But Copic's team play too well for their own good. By becoming better than Dynamo, they are an affront to the system. Copic is told that his team must lose their next, decisive game against Dynamo. But he has already had two sons "disappeared" by the NKVD, and - even at great personal risk - he is in no mood to do the party's bidding. Besides, football coaches don't send their teams out to lose. So Copic sets about persuading his prolific striker, the jilted Radek, to take part in the biggest match Spartak have ever played.
It's a wonderful premise for a novel, and Goddard pulls it off with a flourish. There are a few faults: Grotsky, the sadistic NKVD officer and Dynamo head coach, is somewhat two-dimensional; and there is an improbable sub-plot involving a plan to murder him, hatched by his brutalised girlfriend and one of the Spartak players. But for the most part, Dynamo is a smart, funny and engaging novel from a refreshingly unusual new voice in British fiction.