03 May 2006

A Long Way Down — book review

Guest reviewer Bill Jones, who blogs on politics over at Skipper, looks at the latest offering from Nick Hornby.

A Long Way Down - Click for details and orders at Amazon.co.ukIt is New Year's Eve and four people meet up on 'Topper's Tower' a well known London jumping off point for those strictly interested in oblivion. Martin is a television personality whose career has imploded after he did time for having sex with a 15 year old girl and whose wife and kids then left him. Jess is a young woman who disguises a dysfunctional middle class background behind an edgy, volatile temperament. JJ is a washed up American who thinks his chance of making it in popular music have passed him by. And Maureen is a middle-aged woman with a hopelessly quadriplegic son.

Somehow they all get talking, explain why they are intending to jump and establish a bond based on their common despair. They decide not to jump, go to a bad party and then meet fairly regularly and even experience temporary celebrity of sorts though their individual and group relationships always remain tenuous.

Hornby is a gifted writer who draws the reader in more effectively than most, though I'm struck by his almost total lack of description: no faces, no dawns, no sunsets, no interiors, no exteriors. The scenery is exclusively social. But somehow it doesn't matter.

Hornby is very concerned with human communication. 'Everyone knows how to talk,' says one of his characters,'and no one knows what to say'. The dialogue is highly believable and the author manages to inhabit his characters to a degree which makes you feel you know them intimately by the end of the book.

One proof of this, perhaps, is the fact that all his books so far have been converted into passably good films. With a plot like this I was half expecting a predictably happy or 'inspiring' ending beginning to flag up its appearance. You know the sort of thing - everyone helps each other understand the reasons for their suicidal intentions and then become firm allies in building new reasons for living. A certain kind of American film would have homed in such an ending like a Tomahawk cruise missile.

I suspect Hornby too experienced similar intimations as his characters began to interact. But if he did, he resisted commendably and the book throughout is moving, poignant and insightful without ever becoming unrealistically optimistic or approaching cloying sentimentality. Yet, in spite of all this, the book really does manage to be inspiringly life positive and reinforces wonderfully the truth of the adage that suicide is a permanent answer to a temporary problem.

Nick Hornby, A Long Way Down, London: Penguin, 2006, pp.226, ISBN 0140287027

Click for details and orders at Amazon.comClick for details and orders at Amazon.co.uk



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