A Long Way Down

Hornby, Nick

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Henderson, Schuyler
  • Date of entry: Oct-06-2006
  • Last revised: May-18-2007


On New Years Eve, four strangers go to the rooftop of "Topper's House", each planning to jump to his or her death. There, rather begrudgingly, they manage to convince one another not to commit suicide. The story follows them over the next few months as they forge a type of friendship, try to re-build their lives and decide whether or not to go ahead with suicide.


The novel is written in four first-person narratives, switching between Maureen, Jess, JJ and Martin. Maureen is an older single-mother with a severely handicapped son, Matty. Jess is a provocative, outlandish teenager, whose older sister vanished some years before, and whose father is a New Labour cabinet minister. Martin, a television presenter, is divorced and relegated to cable television after a scandalous encounter with a 15 year-old-girl in a nightclub. Finally, JJ is an American musician who has lost his band and his girlfriend, is stranded in London and is earning money by delivering pizzas.

Although all four are given first person narratives, they rarely transcend the obvious stereotype of prudish older woman, ratty teen rebelling against her stolid but liberal parents, bland rock music fan and that banal blend of narcissism and realism that passes for a middle-of-the-road television stardom. It is more disappointing that Hornby, whose reputation as a writer is partly based on his well-observed comedies about how people define themselves by their immersion in popular culture, should produce four characters marked by obvious and clodding cultural references. Indeed, at several points, his characters, in their monologues to the reader, explain their references, not trusting the reader to catch a reference to Raymond Carver or to know that Mo Tucker was in the Velvet Underground (a fact that surely any Hornby fan would have been able to recall quite easily).

If A Long Way Down is an evocation of mundane people with only the most mundane cultural reference points who are drawn to suicide, it is also unsurprising and stilted. That several of the characters, at several points, note how unsurprising everything is, and warn the reader that it's not going to get any more surprising at the end, seems more of an authorial concession than slice-of-life realism or knowing self-referentialism.

For all its faults, though, this novel chugs along with Hornby's swift pacing and welcoming style. There are some poignant moments when the characters seem to come alive, especially around Maureen caring for her son, Matty.

A Long Way Down is also an interesting investigation of why people consider suicide, even if some of the narrators dwell mostly on clichés (such as the claim that Sylvia Plath and Van Gogh and certain others "were too sensitive to live", pg 24). Martin's shame, Maureen's hopelessness, Jess's belligerent impulsivity and JJ's lack of imagination lead to their ascent to the roof of "Topper's House" ('to top oneself' is to kill oneself). Writing about the book in the Guardian, Nick Hornby says that this book is not about suicide: "a book in which nobody kills themselves cannot be a book about suicide, by definition" (see: http://books.guardian.co.uk/bookclub/story/0,,1778897,00.html ).

This is true, insofar as the four protagonists survive to the end, but Hornby seems to forget that there is indeed a suicide. When the four characters re-unite at the top of 'Topper's House', there is a man already there, and despite their intervention, he jumps. The one completed suicide in this book remains a mystery: an unknown man with unknown reasons. And, unlike the four protagonists, the man is given no more voice than a little moan (pg 178). It is a book about why people consider suicide, and perhaps even about why they do not commit suicide.


Viking Press

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