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Lou Kuenzler's novel explores the start of women's football in Britain during World War I. Photo: Allen and Unwin Book Publishers
OUR BEAUTIFUL GAME
By Lou Kuenzler
Published by Faber
ISBN 978 0 5713 6500 5
One part social commentary on the plight of women footballers, and two parts depiction of British civilian life during the first world war, Our Beautiful Game is a laudable work of historical fiction that is a fitting ode to the early pioneers of women’s football.
The story follows the life of Polly Nabb, a young girl in a family of five brothers from a small town in Lancashire county, as she pursues her dreams of playing football on the pitch “just as the men do”. Alongside her work at a weapons factory, Polly joins a local women’s team called the Sparks. While she is talented, she must also learn to play as a team.
Although the plot is fiction, it is largely inspired by the lives of Lily Parr and Alice Woods, who were trailblazers in women’s football.
During World War I, when men were sent to fight the war, many women and girls worked in munitions factories. There, sports, especially football, were encouraged, and many factories developed their own teams.
Likely the inspiration for Kuenzler’s Sparks, the most famous real-life team was the Dick, Kerr Ladies team. Founded in 1917, their matches drew massive crowds until women’s football was outlawed altogether in 1921.
The book paints a vivid picture of life on the home front during that time period. Its focus on the female munitioneers tasked with building crucial but dangerous weaponry while enduring deadly bombings adds a realistic tint to the story.
Throughout the book, Polly is frequently subjected to criticism and condescending remarks from her male peers. This was obviously done to flesh out the stakes, and illustrate how difficult it was for women at the time to follow their passions in careers they were barred from. But the constant berating felt repetitive and gratuitous after the first few chapters.
Almost every exchange with a character resulted in an insult, followed by a rehearsed quip about how women are just as capable as men. As a result, many of the characters came off as two-dimensional, and were ultimately difficult to sympathise with.
In lieu of this, space would have been better spent devoted to adding more depth to the characters’ motivations and interactions, because those moments were strong when they did occur.
Overall, Our Beautiful Game paints a poignant picture of women’s passion for a beloved sport in difficult and restrictive times. And it may well inspire readers to pick up a ball and follow their dreams, too.