When I read the blurb of let the boys play, I admit I didn’t expect to like it.

“Beset by harrowing violence and dark humour,” it promised … “a misfit cast”, a book written with “nightmarish force”. But somehow Nicholas John Turner’s  latest novel snuck up on me and kept me reading to the final page.

Turner’s book is set in a dystopian Brisbane —there are landmarks like the Pineapple Hotel, Hamilton Hill and Fairfield Cemetery—where corporate expansion has taken a toll on local sport and law enforcement. This is a tale of sport, violence, the rituals of rugby and refereeing and the lives of elite private school students behind closed doors. It is also a tale of cops and a giant and the issue of fertility and a blood thirsty magpie. It is definitely a tale not for the faint-hearted and it comes with a tongue-in-cheek trigger warning about the violence it contains from the author in his Preface.

All of that said, Turner has a marvelous gift for writing characters and the book is a cavalcade of them. Again, I’m not sure if I liked any of them but I found them strangely compelling including officer Richard Foley with his boyish good looks and nutritionally extreme Tier 1 food plan – “the soups seemed to sieve right out of his pores before he’d even finished eating them as though he was shredding some rotten part of his being”; the character that removes his chinos and throws them from the car window; the character that dreams of fumbling his collection of ceramic owls (yes, owls!); and the character who “buries plaited locks of her own head’s exquisitely long straight black hair in soup-sized can holes” under a jacaranda at a suburban rugby ground.

The novel is divided into three sections (that didn’t really help me follow the plot) and follows a non-linear structure. I found myself disoriented at times, searching for patterns and answers that eluded me, but which I’m sure is intentional on the author’s part as there is an intellectual playfulness and taut, complex language throughout that had me entranced.

Turner’s debut novel, Hang Him When He is Not There (2016) was self-published, but then sold into the UK and Ireland to Birmingham-based small press Splice and was longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize in 2019. Turner is also founding contributor to the local amateur sports publication Match Day Burger, described by The Guardian UK as “some of the best sports writing online today,” Turner having a “penchant for illuminating strange sympathetic truths” which have long hinted at his fiction.

In different ways, Turner’s writing reminds me of other authors yet has an inventive voice and mood all its own. I am reminded of David Mitchell (because of the huge cast of characters and the many intersecting separate plot lines), A. M. Homes (for the dark laconic humour and the tone) and perhaps even Charles Dickens due to the plot’s intricacies. It doesn’t fall neatly into any fiction sub-genre but with its heady mix of big themes, intertext, playfulness, endless weird sex and an upended plot, Nicholas John Turner’s let the boys play will likely appeal to a wide readership.

let the boys play by Nicholas John Turner, Savage Motif, $34.99. Instagram @savagemotif

Dr Jane Frank is a Brisbane poet, editor and academic. Her most recent collection is Ghosts Struggle to Swim (Calanthe Press, 2023). 


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