I admit that it took me longer to read my first book of 2021 than I’d have imagined. I started on January 1st and have only just finished today. I’m just experiencing that classic January reading slump. I could have spent last weekend reading but I just couldn’t focus. It doesn’t help that I’m pretty tired now I’m starting back in the old work routine but it should help me get better at reading. It got so bad this week that I was worried I wouldn’t even finish the book in time. So, I turned to the audiobook version to finish the last two thirds. It turned out to be a bad idea because I really didn’t get on board with one of the narrators. She just didn’t sound like I imagined the character would. In fact, very few of the voices seemed to fit their characters. It was a real shame and made it harder to engage with the story.
Nick Hornby is a talented writer and has written some of my favourite books. When he’s on top form, reading his books is an amazing thing. You get caught up in the characters, the humour and the humanity that flows through them. He has a talent for writing about flawed people so that you can actually relate to them. When Hornby is at his best his books can’t be beaten. However, there is another side to his writing but not t a bad one. I wouldn’t say that any of his books are unreadable. It’s just that there are some that fall a little flat. Some that don’t quite reach the heady heights of his most popular books. I would say that A Long Way Down falls into the latter category. It’s not that it isn’t enjoyable but I didn’t exactly find myself rushing to pick it up every night.
You might think that has something to do with the subject matter as reading 4 people wanting to commit suicide isn’t exactly joyful. However, I think the subject matter is handled quite delicately. Hornby is fairly sensitive with his portrayal of people on the edge and steers away from sensationalising it. He also manages to bring a certain amount of humour to the story. Nothing vulgar or edgy but there are definite laughs to be found throughout. Mostly from the absurdity of these four people finding each other and forming a friendship. There’s the disgraced television presenter, the single mother, the troubled teenager, and a failed rock star. They’re hardly the most likely of allies but their shared experience on a roof on New Year’s Eve helps form strong bonds.
When Maureen heads up the Toppers’ House roof just before midnight on December 31st, the last thing she expects to find is someone with the same idea she has. Finding Martin sat on the edge preparing to jump puts a dent in Maureen’s own plan to do the same. When they are later joined by Jess and JJ, the group decide that the moment has passed and head out to find Jess’ ex-boyfriend. After their short adventure and some breakfast, the foursome agrees to meet back at the roof on Valentine’s Day to see if anyone is still set on jumping. Unfortunately, their secret pact is leaked to the press and they find themselves in the spotlight. With the world watching them, the group have to find ways to get on with their lives whilst also trying to come to terms with how close they got to ending it all.
The book is narrated by the four members of the group who take it in turns to describe the events that transpire. The book is not split into chapters but comes in three Acts. The first relays their meeting, the second deals with the aftermath, and the final act shows the consequences of their Valentines’ Day reunion. I have to admit, I did find the constant change in narrator quite tedious. Yes, it gave us a good insight into all four of the main characters but it just made the story feel quite jerky. Still, it made it easy to engage with the four main characters and it helped them feel quite relatable. I think I saw parts of myself in all of them at various points. Particularly JJ. Although, as his story went on it became harder to really care. He fell into the washed-up rock star cliché somewhat.
As far as the story goes, there are some interesting ideas about depression and suicidal thoughts. However, this doesn’t really feel like a book that really cares about the reasons why people might want to kill themselves or the process of healing. It’s more about the connections that form between people and how they adapt over time. The book cares more about the characters and their time together. Maybe it’s because the discourse surrounding mental health has moved on significantly in recent years but A Long Way Down feels quite dated now. The way it brushes off the group’s suicidal thoughts feels quite dismissive. It’s hard to ignore the feeling that Hornby missed the mark somewhat.
Then there’s the fact that the rest of the story just feels like a mess. It’s all quite manic and disjointed. Obviously, this story requires you to suspend your disbelief and that’s not the problem. It’s just that it doesn’t really feel as if it knows what it’s trying to achieve. There are so many random plotlines that don’t necessarily follow each other organically. The only thing keeping them together is this one group. At the same time, there are interesting plot lines that are largely ignored. Jess’ relationship with her parents and older sister deserved more attention but was mostly pushed to the sidelines. Instead, the novel favours a more cheesy and saccharine ending. Don’t get my wrong, this isn’t a Walt Disney fairy tale ending. There’s no happily ever after but, considering the start, things wrap up a little too neatly.
This is one of those books that has a lot of potential but just veers off in the wrong direction. There were a lot of ways that it could have gone following the group’s sudden rise to fame but, for whatever reason, Hornby chooses to go for a rosier ending. There is still plenty to enjoy in this book and it’s not as if it comes without darkness. I just think it could have been stronger. Knowing what a great writer he is, A Long Way Down just feels disappointing.
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