Let’s talk first impressions shall we? My first thought on hearing the title of Nick Hornby’s new novel was oh no, here we go again. Despite (we would say) liking Nick Hornby (our reviews of Stuff I’ve Been Reading, Funny Girl, Juliet, Naked and State of the Union all attest to that), we have a mild but formidable issue with some of his work that began in About a Boy and that issue is Hornby’s ardent commercialism (to which, we know, some of you will bark like hungry dogs, a writer has to be commercial to stay alive these days – we know, we know, we know, that isn’t the point we’re making). In About a Boy, at a sad moment in the book, the main character listens to the music that we all listen to when we’re sad. Now, I don’t know about you, but I tend to listen to American Music Club when I’m sad and as they are not the most successful band in the history of the world I suspect that you, dear reader, probably don’t listen to American Music Club – but if the character in About a Boy listened to American Music Club, I would feel hey this guy is like me, and if he listened to Celine Dion I’d think ugh get better music taste. By being generic, by being everyman, Hornby (imho) sought to say, hey, aren’t we all the same inside. And I think: no. No we’re not. So: when I saw the title of his latest novel I thought: here we go, he’s up to his old tricks. (And the rather Hallmark-y cover didn’t help either.)
But it’s not an everyman title, it’s a race title. Just Like You is an inter-racial love story (to which, we know, some of you will groan and probably mutter something about Star Trek doing this fifty years ago and maybe some of you will wonder why Hornby, and also Michel Faber, in his latest D, are employing black narrators but then possibly just possibly it’s the job of a writer to engage with the live-est of issues right now but we know, don’t we, that there will be people who will hate this book because a white person is writing a black character, such are the times we live in – for the record, it’s the job of a writer to imagine the world from multiple perspectives so we think it’s ok – but then we would, wouldn’t we?) – hence the title often used by people in a plea for tolerance. But it’s also a sort of inverted Harold and Maude (on the one side we have Joseph, a 22 year old black man who works in a butcher’s part-time whilst dreaming of DJ fame, and on the other we have Lucy, forty something, coming out of a failed marriage to a guy called Paul who struggled with dependency issues, and mother to two teenage boys). Last but not least (and please don’t groan you groaners) it’s also Hornby’s Brexit novel. (And, for whatever it’s worth, if Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet could be seen as the equivalent to Delillo’s Falling Man, and Jonathan Coe’s Middle England was our version of Ken Kalfus’ A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, if you look at Brexit in terms of national disasters, then Hornby’s book is probably closer to Jay McInerney’s The Good Life, in that it’s largely pleasant, largely deals with ‘real’ people – quote, unquote – ie people not close to the decision making process, and is small scale from the Woody Allen playbook of ‘in the miniature is the universal’.)
For me, Hornby’s great skill – and it is a great skill, akin to Roddy Doyle – is to state something true, something acutely painful, in a way that stops you in your tracks and has you thinking, yes, I know that feeling, or I have seen that in others:
“Everyone seemed to think that forgiveness was just within reach, there, on the next table, and all she had to do was get up ad turn on the tap, but perversity and bitterness were stopping her. She was angry, yes, but there was no tap.”
Here Lucy is after a particularly squalid altercation on the street outside the home they used to share:
“It was all agony. It was agony for him, and it was agony for her, and the two agonies combined until they were no longer distinct – simply a cloud of grief and pain that enveloped them, on a dark wet pavement smelling of vomit.”
There is, at times, a seemingly effortless ease to which Hornby gets down to the business of telling you what you need to know. Here is Lucy and Joseph hooking up for the first time:
“He sat back down and kissed her, and they took it from there.”
I read that and thought, nicely done. Elsewhere, he does – credit to him – get to the heart of one of the great problems of the age:
“Most of the time, people were not forgiven for being themselves. Politicians who had lied every day of their professional lives were not forgiven for lying. People who had lived in cities were not forgiven for being metropolitan, people who were poor were not forgiven for expressing dissatisfaction, old people were not forgiven for being old and scared. But was that all there was to them? And could you only love someone who thought the same way as you, or were there other bridges to be built further up the river?”
There is ugliness wherever you look. (It’s probably fair to say that Hornby is more on one side than another, though, against the lies and the racism and the ugliness – we wouldn’t expect the Leavers you know to completely like this book – but then, do they read books that challenge their views? Do we?) And yet, in the midst of that, two people in a book do manage to find a way through (and it requires forgiveness because, you know, people make mistakes) and build something new. So (probably as you’d expect from a Nick Hornby book) there is hope and you find yourself given a little boost and – hey, we all need a boost right?
Any Cop?: Just Like You feels more like what we would call classic Hornby (if both Juliet, Naked and Funny Girl were him quietly pushing against type). A crowd pleaser (provided the crowd isn’t full of racists).