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Ambitious, but a failure
on 14 January 2012
This is one of those books which you read and wonder how the critics on the cover could possibly have found anything nice to say. I read High Fidelity a few years ago and didn't think it deserved the attention it had received; I tried again with Hornby, and I'm even less impressed this time.
From the premise of this book, you would be expecting it to attempt three main things:
1) It should explore the mentality of the suicidal. With its four narrators, that would allow for a pretty extensive coverage of the motives for suicide. Instead of this, Hornby describes four ridiculously unrealistic people, all of whom do something insanely out of character at least once in the book: the sheltered Catholic woman who gets drunk and punches a stranger; the crazily wild daughter of an Education Minister who suddenly starts trying to self-analyse; the disillusioned Z-list chat show host who finally gets the chance to talk to his daughters again, and casually throws it away; the thoughtful, bookish lead singer of a band who spontaneously claims to have a fatal illness. In other words, Hornby's characterisation is incredibly poor, and I didn't believe for a minute that these characters were suicidal, perhaps excepting Maureen, the single mother.
2) It should be realistic, at least vaguely, as it is set in the real world. It's not just the characterisation which fails in this; the plot is inexplicably absurd at times, particularly when the crazy 18-year-old (whose mentality is most definitely not that of any 18-year-old I could imagine) claims to a reporter that they have seen an angel. Whilst this act is in itself not too hard to believe, the fact that the three others simply acquiesce to her suggestion makes no sense; the motivation of money doesn't stand alone to explain anything. It's a plot device at best, and not a very good one.
3) It should be well-written. This is an expectation of any book, really. By well-written, I'm not suggesting it needs to be any less conversational, but Hornby's metaphors are all over the place, and frequently he leaves me wondering what he is trying to say - once or twice to represent general confusion would not be a problem, but the writing is clumsy throughout.
The reason I didn't give this book up after the first few pages is that it redeems itself with its light-heartedness, or the occasional poignant moment when it illuminates some truth, or uses phrasing witty enough to raise a smile. I can accept that I'm not in Nick Hornby's target audience, but even then, I could recognise the quality of a book without enjoying it, and in this case, I really can't see it. A Long Way Down offers no real insights and left me frustrated. Possibly, whether you'll like it or not depends on what you want to get from the book, but anyone looking for more than a quick, vaguely humorous read on the train will be disappointed.