There is little doubt Nick Hornby’s About a Boy – the 1998 follow-up to his breakthrough novel High Fidelity – helped to consolidate Hornby’s position as one of British contemporary fiction’s leading authors. By turns witty and thought-provoking, heartfelt and touching, About a Boy remains a humorous fiction novel par excellence, showing the author at the height of his literary powers and a great example of what makes his work so influential.
Whereas High Fidelity was quite a singular-minded exploration of a male music obsessive’s inner psyche, what’s most impressive when it comes to About a Boy is how Hornby challenged himself to handle deeper themes and deploy greater scope in his use of characterisation. There are two main characters in this novel: Will, a grown-up layabout living off on the royalties from a famous Christmas song his father wrote; and Marcus, a troubled young boy who has difficulties at school, possibly suffers from autism, and whose mother is suicidal.
At its heart, About a Boy is a novel honing in on themes of isolation and growing up. Will is a self-imposed loner, living inside a bubble and willingly detaching himself from the reality of the outside world. Marcus, however, is a loner out of necessity rather than choice – his mother’s bouts of depression weigh heavy on him, causing him to feel like an outsider not just at school but also in his own home. In a sense then, this story is not about a boy – it’s about two of them.
Will suffers from a classic case of what might be called a ‘Peter Pan’ complex in his refusal to grow up and become an adult, despite being well into his thirties. Instead, he pursues his own fickle whims by keeping up with the latest trends, tastes and fashions, steadfastly living a selfish life oblivious to others’ problems. It’s only when his paths cross with Marcus that the story introduces a character arc which ultimately changes the both of them for the better.
Reading About a Boy with modern eyes, it’s a little bit disheartening to realise that the issues of mental illness and depression which the novel explores are sadly still just as prevalent today. In particular, the way in which 12-year-old Marcus feels so helpless in the face of his mother’s poor emotional well-being, and how he takes it into his own hands to do some match-making to find someone who can make her happy, is still quite moving.
However, the light and humorous way Hornby handles these weighty themes helps prevent it from descending into mawkishness. What makes Nick Hornby’s novels so special – none more so in the case of About a Boy – is he has a knack for writing accessible yet humorous stories with well-crafted characters, razor-sharp dialogue and a deftness in pace. Nothing feels rushed – his books are always effortless reads, which might fool some into thinking Hornby’s writing is overly simplistic.
On the contrary, with this book, Hornby began exploring a wider literary canvas and more ambitious themes whilst still retaining the unique voice upon which he made his name. If you like novels which tackle serious subjects with propriety, wit and candour, you’d do far worse than to start with About a Boy. Just make sure you don’t watch the film first!
© 2017 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Poet, humorous fiction writer and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.