When I saw the title Wrestliana I instantly assumed I was going to be reading a book about a fanatic WWE fan. My second thought was “how do I even say this word?” But, I pushed those thoughts aside and decided to dig in. What I discovered was a non-fiction book exploring what it means to be a man, family history, fathers and sons, and yes, even an exploration on wrestling. We are taken along on a ride through Toby Litt’s family tree as he explores the story of his great-great-great grandfather, William Litt.
Toby Litt has heard a million stories about his relative since he was a child. His father, after discovering Toby wanted to be a writer, told him he should write a book about William. When Toby’s mother passed away and his father became sick, he decided it was time to discover the truth about this man and put it on paper.
There is a lot to unpack in William’s life and Toby Litt does a wonderful job taking us with him. I found it utterly fascinating to hear about this man’s history, from his claims of winning over two hundred matches in a strange wrestling tradition. Besides the wrestling, William was an author, poet, journalist, smuggler, and lover of his small town Cumberland. It’s the type of story you’d see in a movie, not one you’d think you’d find in a family history. Toby Litt smoothly guides us through all of these adventures as he himself visits these places and reads all of the output.
I will say some of this research does bog the book down a bit. As Toby deftly takes us between the past and present, he seems to get hung up on the tangential history of a person or historical event in William’s life. Some of it is interesting to see, especially when Toby realises how much his life is paralleling William’s. But, at times I found myself losing focus and unclear on the point Toby was trying to make. This doesn’t kill the book, because I was invested in the process of discovery, however at times it felt like listening to a lecture in a class I didn’t know I signed up for.
The meat of the book, and the part that really shines is wrestling. According to Toby, wrestling is a huge part of life in Cumberland and Whitehaven (two small towns in Northern England). The community converges on the event almost every Saturday. With this style of wrestling, two men (or children, or women) enter the ring, get in a double bear-hug, and try to force the other to the ground. “The rules of C&WW are simple: First wrestler to touch the ground with their knee or shoulder or any part of their body that isn’t their foot loses.” I had no idea this type of wrestling existed. Yet, through Toby’s research and the stories he’s heard, it’s been going on for centuries. As we flip from William’s wrestling days to present day, we can’t help but appreciate the fact that the tradition is continuing.
Throughout this dive into William’s history we get a unique view into the rural areas of England. The small towns with farmers, all day wrestling matches, interesting views on people from London or anyone that might be seen as an artist. Being from the United States, I found this very fascinating. Most of what we see of England is London, or at least the more bustling parts of the country. We don’t get much of the small town view outside of historical fiction, so it is a fresh take on the country. I imagine this must be similar to those outside of the States, only seeing or reading about New York or LA. Yet, Litt puts us right into the heartland of England, showing someone like me that no matter what side of the pond you are on, small towns are small towns.
Despite some slow bits of divergence, Wrestliana is a fascinating trip down one man’s family history. William might have peaked early in his life and spent the rest of his time trying to relive his glory days, but his life was an interesting one. Toby Litt went all out in his hunt to discover that family history still plays a part in his life. He found his great-great-great-grandfather’s voice in the books he’s written, in his actions, and was able to use this voice as a guide to become a better father. Yes, this book revolves around wrestling, but don’t let that turn you off, if you are not into that sort of thing.
Look at this book as one man’s quest to discover who he really is and how to use that heritage as a guide for his life.
Wrestliana is published by Galley Beggar Press and is available to purchase here.
TOBY LITT grew up in Ampthill, Bedfordshire. He has worked as a teacher, bookseller and subtitler. A graduate of Malcolm Bradbury’s Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia, Toby is best known for writing his books – from Adventures in Capitalism to Lilian’s Spell Book – in alphabetical order; he is currently working on ‘P.’ He is a Granta Best of Young British Novelist and a regular on Radio 3’s The Verb. His story ‘John and John’ won the Manchester Fiction Prize. Toby teaches creative writing at Birkbeck College.
Reviewed by Matthew Brandenburg
Check out our anthology Exit Earth below which also features a short story written by Toby Litt.
Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.
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