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A Long Way Down September 5, 2006

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.
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A Long Way Down is a story about suicide. Or perhaps more appropriately, it is a story about attempted suicide, and the many (unlikely) things that can drive people into despair – and out of it.

The story follows four despondent souls who have individually come to the conclusion that their lives are not worth living. First, there is disgraced television host Martin, recently released from prison for a public scandal involving a tryst with a fifteen year-old girl. Then there is Maureen, a middle-aged single mother whose life has taken a back seat to caring for her mentally handicapped son. Third is Jess, a disturbed eighteen year-old dealing with the disappearence of her older sister and the trauma it has caused her family. Rounding out the quartet is JJ, a musician reduced to delivering pizzas after his long-time band breaks up and his girlfriend leaves him.

What sets the stage for the plot to unfold is not simply that these four decide to end it all. By coincidence, they decide to off themselves on the same night (New Year’s Eve) and at the same place, none other than London’s erstwhile most popular suicide destination (Topper’s House). When the four cross paths on the fated rooftop, the inevitable occurs: they decide to postpone their jump into oblivion and become the unlikeliest suicide support group to come along in a very long time.

Now, this is the first Nick Hornby book I’ve read, but coming into it I had an idea of what to expect. After all, two of the guy’s books have been adapted to film: High Fidelity, which, strangely, I haven’t seen; and About a Boy, which was brilliant. Besides, it’s rather difficult not to be intrigued by a book about suicide (who hasn’t thought about it, even remotely?), especially when it’s obvious that the story would be lighthearted, if not humorous. As such, from page one the reader is treated to a simple formula: a story where person(s) plan suicide, others get in the way, suicide is put off, and in the process everyone comes to realize that life is worth living, with humor injected along the way.

However, it turns out that the story Hornby unfolds before us is not as simplistic. A Long Way Down does progress in a fairly predictable fashion, but there is no singular catharsis, no grand epiphany, no defining feel-good moment at the end to tug at the heartstrings and drive home the point that life is ultimately worth living (though some will most likely disagree with me on this point). Instead, what insights and revelations the story has to offer about the gravity of personal problems and the value of living are less earth-shattering, sometimes painfully obvious, and spread out in “bite-size portions” often at the unlikeliest of moments. More, while the book itself is humorous in typical understated British fashion – and one is hard pressed not to laugh out loud here and there – it is not an out-and-out riot, which gives the book an air of severity appropriate to the subject matter with which it deals.

If one were to find fault with anything, it is perhaps that Hornby is guilty of creating a story that stumbles through most of the plot. For the most part, while the story has its worthwhile moments of insight here and there, one is mostly driven by the desire to find out what happens next and is left somewhat underwhelmed by most of what transpires throughout the book. But in other respects, that stumbling through is quite apropros to a story about people at the end of their rope coming to terms with their miserable lives. More importantly, it’s that very muddling through that allows Hornby to do what he does best: develop characters that are very, very real.

This is where the book shines. The tough sell that Hornby manages to pull of beautifully is in creating characters that readers can empathize with. In presenting the story from the point of view of each protagonist, the tale becomes very personal to the reader, who cannot help but feel for the characters in their moments of despair and laugh out loud at their sometimes ridiculous antics. This is particularly evident with Jess, whom any reader will want to throttle as much as the other characters do one moment but whose pathos elicits just as much sympathy the next. What this amounts to is not just a book that is for the most part entertaining, but one that is decidedly modern and believable. Reading the book, one cannot help but come to the conclusion that, well, it could happen.

That is to say that A Long Way Down is good, but perhaps not for everyone. Readers expecting to find a story that sings the praises of life and the beauty of living may not find it here, and most likely will be turned off by the fair amount of gratuitous swearing in the dialogue (however realistic). Instead, they will find a story that demonstrates how messed up life can be, how some problems are self-inflicted and occasionally beyond our control. Yet beneath all that, the story does drive home a subtle and uplifting message. Yes, life can be unfair and ugly and on a downward spiral; but no one needs to go through that alone, and things are never so bad that a person can’t be helped by opening up to others, even on that long way down.

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