Review: ‘About a Boy’ by Nick Hornby

Nicolas Hoult and Hugh Grant in the film adaptation.

Having finally read the book, I can safely say that the film version of ‘About a Boy’ got it spot on: it relates Nick Hornby’s tale of growing up perfectly.

The story is simple enough: Will is thirty-six, Marcus is twelve, and yet the latter is infinitely more adult than the former. Whilst simultaneously learning to grow-up and act their age, Will and Marcus explore issues that monopolise everyone’s lives: from learning that your parents are fallible to finding the special someone who likes you for you.

Hornby’s success comes in his language: he doesn’t try to explain everything – Fiona is depressed, we don’t know why; Will is aimless, yet there’s no reason for his lack of orientation. In fact, the only thing that truly makes sense, ironically, is Marcus: he is defined by the his surroundings – his mother and her eccentricities, his father walking away too quickly, his friends abandoning him to enjoy a bully-free existence…Despite how odd he appears, Marcus is the only character who can be fully explained. This lends legitimacy to Will and Fiona’s stories. They are able to come to their own realisations because Marcus needs them to react to him without him explicitly saying so. The shoes incident is a major example of this – Will can only realise that life isn’t as simple as wearing the right outfits by Marcus being vulnerable, and likewise Fiona can only realise Marcus’ needs when she feels like she’s losing him. It’s more what Marcus leaves unsaid than what he verbalises that enables the characters around him to finally step out of their own bubbles.

The sidestepping of the over-psychological analysis of everything feels like Hornby is stating that life isn’t always definable. By treating Fiona’s suicide as an unspoken threat, and Will’s relationship with Rachel as something that happened as opposed to over-analysing why it happened, Hornby is able to show his readers that life happens whether we like it or not, and that it is up to us to mould ourselves around these events. Telling the story from Will and Marcus’ viewpoints helps to achieve this – the two people who think least are forced to think, which creates intensity within the sometimes minimalistic information we are provided with. For instance, Fiona’s suicide is seen by Marcus as the culmination of Dead Duck Day, and by Will as an oddity occurring outside of his sphere of interest, therefore when it comes to it, both have to extend themselves to understand and cope with such events. Will’s later relationship also shows his inability to verbalise his comprehension of an alien subject – Hornby could undoubtedly talk too much about this, and fully explore the feelings and emotion of each character, but the reader is left with just enough information to think for themselves – after all, isn’t self-expansion the point of the story?

‘About a Boy’ started off, to me, as a simplistic read, but ended up being more intense than I imagined it could be: by using the two central characters with a limited view of life, Nick Hornby is able to expand both their and our horizons. One of the most poignant moments that spelled this out to me was when Rachel told us why she could never just give up on life: it would be awful to miss out.

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