Review: About A Boy by Nick Hornby

About A Boy is a book that I have had on my radar for some time. Yet, in a strange reversal of my typical process, I have been pretty content to restrict my familiarity with the story to what is depicted in the film adaptation. I am fully aware that, in saying this, I am committing a terrible kind of bibliophilic blasphemy. In the midst of revision-induced insanity, I decided to go on a book rummage (my cure for everything) in one of my favourite literary haunts – Welwyn Garden City’s fabulous Oxfam bookshop. Finally coming face-to-face with a hardcopy of About A Boy, and looking for a book that would not place too much demand on my already over-taxed mind, I added it to my pile of purchases. Two weeks, several exams, and many tears later, I have finally made it to the review.

About A Boy depicts a truly strange juxtaposition of lives. Thirty-six year old Will Freeman – trendy, wealthy, and utterly self-involved – is a man wrapped up in the search for immediate pleasures. Frequenting nightclubs and parties, his life is guided by an unrelenting pursuit of women for one-night stands and only the most superficial of relationships. This all changes when his path crosses with twelve year old Marcus – wearer of fuzzy jumpers, fan of Joni Mitchell, and social outsider. Living with his depressive single mother, Fiona, Marcus meets Will while on an outing with Fiona’s friend and the single-parent group SPAT (Single Parents Alone Together). Will has joined SPAT with the intent of hitting on single mothers, creating a fictional son, Ned, to do so. After Marcus returns home to find that his mother has attempted suicide, he forms an unlikely friendship with Will. As Will attempts to teach Marcus the ways of social convention – from the right sort of trainers to wear, to the right kind of music to listen to – he finds himself confronted with the reality of a life guided entirely by self interest. Coming to play a central role in Marcus’s life, and with Fiona slipping back into her old habits, Will is forced to make a choice between retaining his detachment from emotional existence and accepting that no life can be lived entirely apart from others.

It is a strange thing, coming to a book after having seen some sort of adaptation. It is, after all, the ultimate kind of spoiler, inevitably divesting the plot of much of the author’s stylistic individuality and narrative quirks. For this reason, I will always maintain that impending film viewings should be pre-empted with a dip into the book. Yet, there is something to be said for having a superficial familiarity with the plot before reading. Without the almost inevitable desperation to discover the book’s conclusion and resolution, it is undoubtedly easier to absorb the various literary techniques at work, as well as the authorial skill. About A Boy is not a book that presents any practical challenge to the reader. But it is a novel for which some advance knowledge of the plot is definitely an advantage. Because this is a work that captures the voice of its main characters with remarkable efficacy – a fact that I think is better enjoyed when unhampered by concern for the book’s resolution. Nick Hornby’s narrative style is totally refreshing, based largely in the strange paradox he creates between the perspectives of the self-involved Will and the odd, but fantastically observant, Marcus. And in amongst the virtually tangible levels of pain, the reader is treated to some of the most well-written comedic moments in literature:

“Marcus couldn’t believe it. Dead. A dead duck. OK, he’d been trying to hit it on the head with a  piece of sandwich, but he tried to do all sorts of things, and none of them had ever happened before. He’s tried to get the highest score on the Stargazer machine in the kebab shop on Hornsey Road – nothing. He’d tried to read Nicky’s thoughts by staring at the back of his head every maths lesson for a week – nothing. It really annoyed him that the only thing he’d ever achieved through trying was something he hadn’t really wanted to do that much in the first place. And, anyway, since when did hitting a bird with a sandwich ever kill it? Kids must spend half their lives throwing things at the ducks in Regent’s Park. How come he managed to pick a duck that pathetic?”

Fundamentally, however, this is a truly poignant work. The circumstances surrounding Marcus and Will’s friendship, and the underlying concern for Marcus’s mother, are woven throughout the plot. As Marcus faces his Mum’s illness, dominated by concern for her and for his own future, it is the parallel narrative of Will’s superficiality that really brings the themes home. While Will seeks out his latest conquests and concerns himself with the newest fashions, Marcus’s battle is given an added dimension. Because it is through Marcus that Will is finally able to mature and address his inconsequentialist attitude towards life. Despite About A Boy‘s comedic elements, it is a difficult read in places. Yet, I am convinced that it is the juxtaposition of these elements – the placement of comedy next to tragedy, of selfishness next to selflessness – that really brings this book to life.

“One Monday morning his mother started crying before breakfast, and it frightened him. Morning crying was something new, and it was a bad, bad sign. It meant that it could now happen at any hour of the day without warning; there was no safe time…Marcus never said anything when she cried. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t understand why she did it, and because he didn’t understand he could’t help, and because he couldn’t help, he just ended up standing there and staring at her with his mouth open, and she’d just carry on as if nothing was happening.”

As I have said above, this book is not a difficult read in practice. The tone and style make for a work that is easy to get through in relatively little time. But About A Boy is the perfect example of a book that is practically easy, psychologically tough. I think that, in placing Will and Marcus side-by-side, Hornby has managed to create a powerful story – one in which the reader is inevitably forced to consider the trivialities of his/her own life. Through Will’s education – the lessons learnt through his friendship with Marcus – this book also triumphs in celebrating our interconnectedness:

“Will looked at this strange little group, his gang for the day, and tried to make some sense of it All these ripples and connections! He couldn’t get his head round them. He was not a man given to mystical moments, even under the influence of narcotics, but he was very worried that he was having one now, for some reason…Some of these people he hadn’t known until today; some of them he had only known for a little while, and even then he couldn’t say that he knew them well. But here they were anyway… Will couldn’t recall ever having been caught up in this sort of messy, sprawling chaotic web before; it was almost as if he had been given a glimpse of what it was like to be human.”

So even though this is a book that I came to with preconceptions, my resulting impression was not the worse for it. It is a truly wonderful novel – at times emotionally troubling and terrible, at others refreshingly honest and utterly hilarious.

After trying very hard, I couldn’t resist adding in this film clip. Enjoy!

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