Thursday, 19 November 2009

A Long Way Down (Nick Hornby)

--The blurb--
"Narrated in turns by a dowdy, middle-aged woman, a half-crazed adolescent, a disgraced breakfast TV presenter and an American rock star cum pizza delivery boy, A Long Way Down is the story of the Toppers House Four, aka Maureen, Jess, Martin and JJ. A low-rent crowd with absolutely nothing in common - save where they end up that New Year's Eve night. And what they do next, of course. Funny, sad, and wonderfully humane, Nick Hornby's new novel asks some of the big questions: about life and death, strangers and friendship, love and pain, and whether a slice of pizza can really see you through a long, dark night of the soul."

--The review--
The downside of the writers' maxim "write what you know" is that this causes some writers to be guilty of monotony. Nick Hornby is not one of these - while similar characters may occasionally reappear, the situations in which they find themselves are so wildly diverse that this is soon forgotten. In A Long Way Down, Hornby also throws together an almost completely random cast, too, and kicks off in medias res, so that the reader's main goal is to work out how this kaleidoscope of characters all ended up in the same place, with the same aim, at the same time.

This in itself is immediately attention-grabbing, as is the darkly awkward backdrop against which it's set. Hornby takes a risk with grouping four people on the roof of a tall building with the same shared purpose of committing suicide, as it initially seems to the reader that there's only one way this could go: presumably they cannot actually go through with their aim, or there would be no book. Indeed, the answer to this question is repeatedly deferred, but the deferral is not irritating: it allows us to find out more about the characters, reach a conclusion that is (arguably) more appropriate than the obvious, and carry out a stark assessment of the ways in which we view the problems of others. There is superficiality in droves, but in spite of this, all of the characters seem equally seriously trapped, and it is easy for us to see how they might believe that this is the only way out.

Subsidiary characters are also well-developed - even those whom we actually never meet, such as Jess' sister Jen. They are all accorded the required level of importance to make the novel an effective one, and it is perhaps this that contributes to the resolutions that occur at the novel's end (resolutions which, it should be mentioned, do their job well without everyone necessarily sailing off into the sunset). The novel is unconventional, so it's worth going in with patience and an open mind. It is different to Hornby's previous work; instinct tells me that it is perhaps also not as good, though perhaps only rereadings will be able to confirm that. It was certainly a gamble for Hornby, who could easily stay in the romantic comedy genre for the entirety of his career (or even not write again at all should he so wish), but maybe it is only through such risky bets that real winners emerge.

Other works by Nick Hornby
High Fidelity (1995)
About A Boy (1998)
How To Be Good (2001)
Slam (2007)
Juliet, Naked (2009)

1 comment:

Ron said...

I just finished reading this. What's amazing about Mr. Hornby is that he can get inside his character's skin so well. The voice is authentic, and the actions even more so.

Even if the situations are sometimes implausible, there is an authenticity which is true to form for each person he brings to life.

Thus, the reader (well, I, for one) is more than willing to go along with the ride.

Of course, it helps a lot, that in spite of the grim subject matter, Mr. Hornby can make you laugh out loud in the most inappropriate of times.

Thank you for your review! It's always good to see other people's interpretation of what I just read, AFTER I read it. It gives the book more layers of meaning - and I can view it from an angle that I might have missed.