Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

Headshot by Rita Bullwinkel review – tale of teenage girl boxers scores a knockout
Culture Sport

Headshot by Rita Bullwinkel review – tale of teenage girl boxers scores a knockout

What a pleasure it is to find a novel that’s unlike anything else out there, that succeeds on its own idiosyncratic terms and leaves the reader’s head ringing. Headshot is American writer Rita Bullwinkel’s first novel, after her collection of stories Belly Up (2016), and it takes us deep into the world of teenage girl boxers.

The setting is the 12th Annual Daughters of America Cup, held in the “tin warehouse” of Bob’s Boxing Palace in Reno, Nevada: a two-day competition of fists and fury, with eight fighters in three knockout rounds. We get into the heads of all eight girls, the narrative passing easily from one to another through brief moments of connection. What’s most impressive is how, in a relatively short novel with so many central characters, Bullwinkel manages to make each girl spark distinctively on the page – even if this means each tends towards a single overwhelming personality trait.

There’s Artemis Victor, the third in a line of boxing sisters (the judges treat her family “like old friends”), and in her own estimation the prettiest of the fighters in the tournament: “There’s one woman, over there, who may be prettier, if you like women who look like drug addicts.” But she is haunted by the knowledge that even if she wins, “she’ll still be second best to her oldest sister”.

Artemis hates her opponent Andi Taylor, but wants to be her friend afterwards. The intimacy of the violence they’re engaged in can do that. For Andi’s part, she cannot stop ruminating on the sight of her father’s dead body, and without him, “she needed another person in her life to tell her that she was a real person, and that she might not be special, but she was fine”.

Then there’s Rachel Doricko, who likes to frighten people – “it is amazing the power that a strange hat will give you” – and her opponent Kate Heffer, who comes with plans and projects, which means that when they hit reality (or are hit by it), she collapses. We get glimpses of the audience too, mostly family members “applauding for something, applauding for anything”, but the girls are fundamentally alone.

The fights themselves show the necessary blend of mental and physical endurance that approaches the metaphysical horror of the dance marathon in Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? To the fighters, success – one “wins quickly, like a mother putting toys away in a toy box at the end of the day” – is all the sweeter because they know what it means to fail at something that means more to you than anything else.

Headshot speaks of putting everything you’ve got into one aspect of your life: “A life taken over can be wonderful. But it can also be sappy and stupid and dramatic.” What happens when the curtain goes down on the only thing you do? We get sly Muriel Spark-like shots forward to the future: “When Artemis is 60 she won’t be able to hold a cup of tea” because of her boxing injuries. Another fighter will become an actor, “a beloved typecast granny”.

Headshot feels like the complete deal in a way we rarely see in debut fiction: efficient, forceful, just messy enough to be interesting and leaving space in the ring for the reader. If this, after Kathryn Scanlan’s Kick the Latchlast year, is part of a new trend for fantastically unclassifiable books about women in sport, I’m in.

Source: theguardian.com