About A Boy and A Long Way Down, by Nick Hornby

The cover of About A Boy, by Nick Hornby
The cover of About A Boy

About A Boy is only the second Hornby novel that I’ve read, so this is hardly a scientific theory, but his writing process must go something like this: Old Nick picks some themes on the topic of misery – say, being a single parent, school bullying and depression – and then his dark minions go out and search London for real life people that fit the description, latching themselves into their brains, and transmitting their thoughts back to their dark master so that all he has to do is write it down and send it to his publisher.

Surely that’s the only explanation for how remarkably well Hornby articulates what goes on in people’s minds. When I first started reading A Long Way Down and it occurred to me that he was trying to write four different people in the first person perspective, I thought (while wearing my aspiring author’s cap): there’s no way that he’s going to be able to make them all sound distinct and authentic. I mean after all, how much insight can he possibly have into the mind of a 40-something divorcee with a disabled child?

The two books are quite similar. More than once while reading About A Boy (published in 1998), I got the feeling that A Long Way Down (2005) was its spiritual sequel, because in both books Hornby is fascinated with people who seem ordinary on the outside, but are in reality on the brink of “topping” themselves – i.e. committing suicide.* Both books are written in the “he said, she said” format, where one character speaks (or rather, narrates) first and then the other, although as I already mentioned before, Down is twice as ambitious in having four voices as opposed to Boy‘s two. The plots of both also revolve around a bunch of seemingly incompatible strangers coming together in one big happy, chaotic, totally random dysfunctional anti-families as the solution to all their woes.

A Long Way Down
The cover of A Long Way Down

It’s a shame that I watched the movie version of About A Boy before reading the book, because I couldn’t help but picture the male loser character (Will) as Hugh Grant. But then again, Grant is the archetypal British cad anyway (opposite Colin Farrell’s straight man, à la Bridget Jones’ Diary). Other than that though, the characters in both books seemed so… real. Hornby has a way of writing that makes you see the world through the character’s eyes, whether it’s a depressed single mother, a washed-out rock star, a dorky 12-year old or a disgraced former TV host.

The plots, if you could call them that, are little more than the morbid curiosity of wanting to see what happens next to this little circus of freaks – the story doesn’t really begin and end so much as we – the reader – starts and stops watching them. The feeling is not unlike experiencing a small slice of literary soap opera, and to stretch the cake analogy even further, it’s about as much as one can handle – much more and you’d get sick.

I do wonder though, whether my affinity for these books is more to do with my respect for Hornby’s abilities as an author, and being a slight anglophile. After all, these are probably among the most unlikely choice of books for GeekReads – it’s filed under “general fiction” for crying out loud! But what do you think? Does Nick Hornby and his kind of books belong in this blog?


* From experience – specifically from my review of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog over at cyberseraphic – I reckon that some rabid Nick Hornby fan is going to come out of nowhere and post a comment about how the two books are nothing alike or not even remotely related, just like how some completely random Whedonite managed to find my other site to post corrections about what I wrote.

Check out Nick Hornby books at The Book Depository.


  1. When the random Hornby fan posts that comment, I’ll second it – I don’t think the two books are much alike at all. I loved About A Boy, but A Long Way Down… not so much. I do think Nick Hornby is a fantastic writer though – check out ‘An Education’ to see his work on film – he can write dialogue like noone else. If these are the only two you’ve read so far, I highly recommend High Fidelity for a real Hornby-fest.

    As for whether it belongs on geekreads, Hornby himself seems a bit of a geek. Not so much in the skilled-at-computers kind of way, but a retro-geek who loves old-fashioned records and tape compilations.

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