Last summer, after I read Mal Peet's tremendous WWII novel, Tamar, I promised myself I would read everything he's written. This was before I knew he'd done a book about soccer. It's not soccer that's the problem, exactly. There have been moments when I've enjoyed watching soccer. Honest. By the end of the last World Cup, I had just about figured out the whole offside thing. I just don't do sports books. So when Keeper showed up at my library with bare-chested soccer boy on the cover, I wondered if there was any way this book could actually be about art or wizards or a mystery or something. Nope. It's a soccer book. A promise is a promise, though, so I started reading. As it turns out, Keeper is a story for soccer fans and for nerdy, non-sporty types too. I guess that makes it a book for the whole world.
Keeper tells the story of El Gato, one of the most gifted soccer players in history, tracing his humble beginnings in a small logging community in South America all the way to the World Cup. Peet frames his novel as an exclusive interview of El Gato by sports reporter Paul Faustino. As a kid, El Gato wasn't exactly the one getting picked first for soccer games in the town plaza. He was completely hopeless, nicknamed "The Stork" for his long skinny limbs and clumsy movements. By thirteen, he'd given up on the game, taking to wandering off on his own into the fringes of the jungle surrounding his town, in spite of the dangers and wildness within. One day, he breaks his own rule, stepping off the forest track for the first time, towards sunlight deep in the trees. What he finds that day is remarkable - magical - and it changes his life.
What does he find, you ask? If I tell you, you'd better not think this book is just plain weird. You'd better still read it because in this case, it's the strangeness that makes Keeper really get inside your head. That day in the jungle, El Gato finds a clearing, covered in turf, with a goal set against the trees. He also finds his mentor, a ghostly soccer player he comes to call: the Keeper. The Keeper trains El Gato, and like the best teachers out there, helps him to find his talent and let it grow. In this way, El Gato heads towards his destiny.
One of the best parts of Keeper is its strangeness. I spent a lot of time wondering what I was supposed to make of the magical element of the story. Just who is this Keeper character supposed to be? Is he symbolic? Does he exist only in El Gato's mind? Is El Gato crazy? What gives? This questioning really keeps you engaged in the story and builds tension. Not that the story isn't already packed with action and compelling circumstances. There are some fantastic recaps of El Gato's most dramatic games, sure to please any soccer fan. You'll also learn a great deal about goalkeeping strategy. Don't start snoring nerdy-types! You'll be loving those soccer sequences too. That's because Mal Peet can't put a word wrong. This guy is to writing what his character is to goalkeeping. I'm convinced that you could open to any page in this book at random and find at least one beautiful sentence. As a side note, I like the fact that Keeper gives readers something to think about beyond soccer too. The background against which much of the story unfolds is the logging camp where El Gato's father makes his living. You can't read this and not consider the complex connections between deforestation, poverty and life in small communities in South America. It's not a banging-you-over-the-head issue book, but these stronger themes are certainly important to the book's power.
So as it turns out, Keeper has its share of magic and mystery and it certainly convinced me that world-class goalkeeping is a true art form. A sports book convert? Stay tuned. I'll let you know after I've read Penalty, the companion novel to Keeper.