Thursday, January 29, 2015

A LONG WAY DOWN: BOOK REVIEW

A Long Way Down
Written by: Nick Hornby
Paperback: 333 pages
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Language: English
June 2005
Genre: Fiction

In his eagerly awaited fourth novel, New York Times-bestselling author Nick Hornby mines the hearts and psyches of four lost souls who connect just when they've reached the end of the line.

Meet Martin, JJ, Jess, and Maureen. Four people who come together on New Year's Eve: a former TV talk show host, a musician, a teenage girl, and a mother. Three are British, one is American. They encounter one another on the roof of Topper's House, a London destination famous as the last stop for those ready to end their lives.

In four distinct and riveting first-person voices, Nick Hornby tells a story of four individuals confronting the limits of choice, circumstance, and their own mortality. This is a tale of connections made and missed, punishing regrets, and the grace of second chances.

Intense, hilarious, provocative, and moving, A Long Way Down is a novel about suicide that is, surprisingly, full of life.

What's your jumping-off point?

Maureen // Why is it the biggest sin of all? All your life you're told that you'll be going to this marvelous place when you pass on. And the one thing you can do to get you there a bit quicker is something that stops you getting there at all. Oh, I can see that it's a kind of queue-jumping. But if someone jumps the queue at the post office, people tut. Or sometimes they say "Excuse me, I was here first." They don't say "You will be consumed by hellfire for all eternity." That would be a bit strong.

Martin // I'd spent the previous couple of months looking up suicides on the Internet, just out of curiosity. And nearly every single time, the coroner says the same thing: "He took his own life while the balance of his mind was disturbed." And then you read the story about the poor bastard: His wife was sleeping with his best friend, he'd lost his job, his daughter had been killed in a road accident some months before . . . Hello, Mr. Coroner? I'm sorry, but there's no disturbed mental balance here, my friend. I'd say he got it just right.

Jess // I was at a party downstairs. It was a shit party, full of all these ancient crusties sitting on the floor drinking cider and smoking huge spliffs and listening to weirdo space-out reggae. At midnight, one of them clapped sarcastically, and a couple of others laughed, and that was it-Happy New Year to you, too. You could have turned up to that party as the happiest person in London, and you'd still have wanted to jump off the roof by five past twelve. And I wasn't the happiest person in London anyway. Obviously.

JJ // New Year's Eve was a night for sentimental losers. It was my own stupid fault. Of course there'd be a low-rent crowd up there. I should have picked a classier date-like March 28, when Virginia Woolf took her walk into the river, or November 25 (Nick Drake). If anybody had been on the roof on either of those nights, the chances are they would have been like-minded souls, rather than hopeless f*ck-ups who had somehow persuaded themselves that the end of a calendar year is in any way significant.


+++++++++++++

I'm a Nick Hornby fan. High Fidelity and About a Boy are two of my favorites. I sat here wondering why I like them. And I think it comes down to this…they are messy. Sometimes you don’t like the characters or the things that they do to one another. Other times the evoke the feelings and regrets none of us ever really want to feel. Nothing is tidy. Nothing is perfect. It’s just kind of life. In A Long Way Down none of the characters are really likable and they are mostly horrid to one another and yet they are also strangely endearing. They don’t want to be friends. They are just brought together by unusual circumstances and need one another whether they would like to admit it or not.

Let’s face it we have also all probably gone through a day when you kind of want to give up on at all…but you don’t. Some of us have had a serious bout of depression where this feeling has lasted longer. We get through it or try the best we can. But what if on that horrible, no good, very bad day you met up with 3 other strangers that were having it just as tough as you? What would you do? This is the premise of A Long Way Down.

It’s a ridiculous coincidental and absurd premise that begins with four people who meet each other on the top of a building on New Year ’s Eve as each prepare to throw themselves off the roof. Martin is first. He has lost his marriage, his kids, his job, and reputation because he spent a bit in jail after sleeping with a 15 year old, he thought was 18. It doesn’t help that he happened to be an on air personality. Just as he is about to jump 51 year old Maureen climbs up to join him. She, too, doesn’t have the most amazing life. She is the single mother to Matty, her severely disabled son. She has no friends, no hobbies, no lover…just Matty and it is an undeniably lonely existence. Martin, halting his jump since it is a lot harder when you have an audience, backs away from the ledge just in time to see teenage Jess run towards the edge. You see Jess slept with Chas who never spoke to her again and she is a bit upset about it all. And finally we have JJ, pizza delivery guy and ex-band member. They can’t all jump now can they?

Instead they eat some pizza and decide to help Jess by tracking down her ex, Chas, who she has not been stalking unless you call tons of phone calls stalking. That solved, they find other things to do that will keep them from jumping. At least on New Year’s Eve that is. At the end of the night they decide to give it a few more weeks, and see if they can help one another out. It’s an odd friendship between four very unusual people, but it will only last until Valentine’s Day right?

Things I liked: This is a story about suicide. There is no getting around that. But like most of Hornby’s works it is also about relationships, life, and manages to deal with suicide not in a callous way but more of in a dark comedy way. In the end it is funny more than it is poignant. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t thought provoking. As someone who has dealt with severe depression it was also a story I could relate to in one aspect or another. This isn’t a story with any easy answers, if there are answers at all. It isn’t full of sentimentality or forcing you what to think or feel. And it sure as hell is not a story that is all self-help and righteousness. It is what it is. Funny, entertaining, and absurd. I think this is why I liked it.

I also liked the ending. There are no solutions that solve everything and tie it neatly in a bow. No one really lives happily ever after. Maureen’s son Matty hasn’t changed. Martin cannot undo his past, Jess’s sister isn’t going to magically reappear, and I sincerely doubt that JJ is really going to get his act together. But I don’t need for them to have storybook endings. I don’t need there to be this overwhelming power of love that heals all wounds and makes everything full of rainbows and puppies. It’s just life. Occasionally life is shitty and you either move past it or you don’t. I still have my craptastic days. I still get scared, angry, panicky, worried, etc. You learn to live with those feelings, you deal with them, and change the situation if you can. Of course sometimes that comes with a whole set of emotions and things to deal with. But, like I said, that is life. I wish it were all rosy, buts it’s not. We make mistakes. That is how we learn and grow, or at least you hope that you do. You also try to find that one thing every day that makes you look forward to the next day.

I liked the way that it was told in rotating first person. As you see the world from each of their point of views you understand why they may have all ended up on that roof and why, as horrid as they are to one another, that they needed one another on that rooftop and maybe, just maybe they will need each other again.

Things I didn’t like so much: For as much as I liked the novel overall, it is not my favorite Hornby book. I had a hard time staying focused on it and I read this over two weeks not my usual day or two. I wish I could put my finger on why I wasn’t immediately captured by the prose or the story. It just seemed a bit uneven overall. I think there are brilliant moments within, but the prose tying those together wasn’t as great as I expected it to be. Small gripe I suppose, but bigger than I want it to be.

Buy or Borrow: Buy. While maybe not his strongest book, I still have a fondness for Hornby and I think you might too.

Part of:Stand alone

Also Recommended: High Fidelity and About a Boy also by Nick Hornby. For another book about suicide I enjoyed Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.

3.5 out of 4 happy bibliosnark bookmarks 

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