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A Long Way Down - Nick Hornby
Member Name: ms_memory
A Long Way Down - Nick Hornby
Date: 03/04/10, updated on 05/04/10 (94 review reads)
Advantages: A solid, entertaining read
Disadvantages: Not as funny as other Hornby novels
** Synopsis **
It's New Year's Eve, and 51-year-old Maureen, the single mother of a profoundly disabled son, is about to kill herself. But when she arrives on the roof of the well-known north London suicide spot Topper's House, it turns out she's not the only person planning to plunge 15 stories to her death. In fact, you could say it's quite crowded up there. Maureen is joined by a washed-up former TV presenter who has just come out of jail, a wannabe rock singer whose band and relationship have both just split up and a foulmouthed teenage girl with anger management problems. Despite their very different backgrounds and situations, the four unhappy people form an unlikely alliance and spend the next few months trying to work out whether there's any point attempting to turn their lives around, or whether they should return to Topper's House and finish what they started.
** My opinion **
Suicide is a really unusual subject for a comic novel and you certainly can't accuse Nick Hornby of lacking originality on this score. It was probably partly due to the unusual theme of the novel and partly thanks to the cult status of Hornby's previous books that A Long Way Down was released in a blaze of publicity in 2005. For a long time the hype surrounding the book put me off reading it, and it was only this week that I decided to put aside my cynicism and pick it up. And guess what? I'm glad I did.
The novel is narrated in the first person; the perspective switches between the four main characters every page or so, which makes for a sense of immediacy and a very lively and engaging read, especially since they often address the reader directly as they recount their stories. The characters have very different voices, so it's usually easy to keep track of who is narrating at any particular moment: there's the pompous, fake-tanned, middle-class-and-proud-of it Martin, a one-time breakfast TV presenter who disgraced himself by sleeping with a 15-year-old (she'd claimed to be 16). His subsequent 3 months in jail robbed him of his wife, children, career and self-respect. Meanwhile, Maureen is a middle-aged woman whose life stopped in her early 30s, when her fiancÚ left her to bring up their disabled son single-handedly. JJ is an American who came to England for love - and is now on his own: unhappy, unqualified for anything and unable to get any work apart from delivering pizzas. Jess, the youngest of the group, appears to be suffering from a simple broken heart, but it turns out her problems run much deeper than that.
What I really appreciated about this novel was its lack of schmaltz and sentimentality. The group of potential suicides don't all become friends and persuade each other they have everything to live for. In fact, they don't get on that well and don't even like each other; the only reason they keep meeting is because they are all in desperate situations and don't have anyone else to turn to. There are some scenes where the four protagonists are actually extremely nasty to each other. Jess warns the reader quite early on that we shouldn't expect a typical happy ending, and there are various sarcastic allusions throughout the novel to soppy films and inspirational storybooks and how unrealistic their plots are.
I found the voices of Jess and JJ quite irritating at first; they seemed like a poorer version of Holden Caulfield from A Catcher in the Rye and I got the impression that Hornby wasn't entirely comfortable writing from Jess and JJ's perspectives. Similarly, I didn't find the voice of Maureen that authentic at the beginning either, and there were points throughout the novel where I thought her naivety was a little too far-fetched to be true to life. As the novel progressed, though, Hornby seems to settle into the four different characters and I found the second half a lot easier to read in this respect. The character of Martin, on the other hand, was absolutely spot-on from beginning to end - his character's oily smugness comes across really well.
In general, I'd say the second half of the novel is much more satisfying than the first, as we know more about the characters and the plot really gets moving. Although I found it a good strategy on Hornby's part to reveal more about the characters bit by bit rather than all at once over the first few pages, I did feel that the story dragged a little at the beginning. The few laugh-out-loud moments for me also came towards the end of the novel. I didn't find much to chuckle at in the first half, which I was a bit disappointed with, as I'd found other writing by Hornby (e.g. How to be Good) extremely funny.
In conclusion, this is not a book that tells people how to avoid suicide; it's not even particularly philosophical on the topic. It's more an account of four everyday people, their problems, and the options they have for overcoming their despair. The novel might appear to make light of suicide but doesn't go as far as mocking those who do take that way out, and the reader is left with the overall impression that suicide is a very sad thing that shouldn't be joked about. While I didn't find this book as funny or as deep as some of Nick Hornby's other novels, it was a good, solid, entertaining read.
** The Penguin paperback has 257 pages and slightly too-small print **
Summary: A lively and original novel