I have always loved Nick Hornby. I fell in love with his prose when Fever Pitch came out and was suitably skewered by his analysis of insecure, introspective young men with High Fidelity. I was, of course, charmed by About a Boy.
And, although I feel like these are going to the three books on his tombstone, even his less well known/popular books are, at worst, always readable.
Love Across the Brexit Barricades
I can’t quite decide if this book is going to get him in trouble or not. It certainly tap dances into some pretty heated areas: this is a novel of love across Brexit barricades, splintering society, race. Not too many hot button issues for a white, middle class writer of a certain age to try and tackle.
Except it isn’t really. Because it’s Hornby and he’s just so good at what he does. In Joseph and Lucy he seems to have the only two people in the world prepared to admit that they don’t understand issues and don’t have all, or indeed any, of the answers.
Lucy is a divorcee in her early 40s with two kids. Head of English at a not particularly good north London comprehensive, she juggles a trying-to-reform alcoholic ex, a good group of friends and some fairly shambolic blind dates with good humour and a resignation that this might be what life has left in store for her.
Into this fairly acceptable world comes Joseph. A 22-year-old man who dreams of a making music while paying for himself through football coaching, a part time job in a leisure centre, a bit of babysitting and tutoring and a Saturday job in the butchers of Lucy’s gentrified area.
With the Brexit referendum looming in the background, these two magnetically attracted people must decide where they stand and whether their race, their income, their education and their very different worlds can be surmounted by love.
What the novel definitely does do is a fantastic job of demonstrating the divisions within which our society works now.
Joseph and Lucy inhabit different worlds, by dint of race, age and income but – crucially – the flow of information is literally different.
Joseph gets his information from Instagram, chasing rabbit holes of information inaccessible to Lucy.
However, her white, middle class privilege means that both characters are ensconced in their own unintentionally echo chambers. If not comfortably then at least unquestioningly for a big chunk of the novel.
Hornby’s description of Lucy’s awareness of the difference between her generation is very well done and, frankly, scalpel sharp:
“Lucy was beginning to suspect that he might be what the girls at her school would refer to as a ‘fuckboy’, a word she discouraged them from using because of its first four letters but which in all other ways seemed an entirely welcome neologism. There had always been tarts and slags and sluts, and now there were fuckboys, and the contempt with which the girls spat the word out gladdened her heart.”
And yet, possibly its most astonishing achievements as a piece of work devoted to the present is that this is a novel from which anger is absent for the most part.
In fact, possibly the weakest aspect for the reader is that Hornby chooses not to show the arguments even when they do happen. They are reported but we don’t hear the words, we are merely told the fall out and left to decide for ourselves.
For a novel in which race is an enormous factor and at this moment in history, that’s a phenomenal achievement.
Hornby is still the best and most accessible of modern observers. He is razor sharp on the gentrified areas of north London where one normally encounters his characters.
There’s a definite lineage between High Fidelity’s Rob and his DJ ambitions and 22-year-old Jospeh and his tracks. Of course, whereas Rob ran a slightly dilapidated record shop which his partner was a corporate lawyer, here we have a partner who is Head of English at a bog standard comprehensive and a young man with a portfolio career, scratching a living working multiple jobs.
The fact that this makes him better off than his peers at university is one of the quieter and depressing twists of Hornby’s knife.
Witness Joseph’s musical mentor and school friend. Zech.
“Americans used the dollar sign to look flash, but PoundMan sounded cheap, like Poundland. Zech meant it to sound cheap, too. It was, he said, a celebration of Haringey consumer culture.”
A Tale of Simple Things
Yet, at heart this is a novel of simple things. In a complicated world in which both characters come with baggage, make mistakes, there is a simple message.
“If you’d asked him…what made him happy, he wouldn’t really have understood the relevance of the question. Now he knew the answer: sleeping with Lucy, eating with Lucy, watching T.V. with Lucy. And maybe there was no future in it, but there was a present, and that’s what life consists of.”
Maybe that is something we can all, in this most heated and divided of times, get behind.