There is a nervousness that hums through the pages of Nick Hornby’s latest novel. Set in North London, against the backdrop of the 2016 Brexit referendum, the tension and divisions have never been more apparent. (You know it’s bad when you start to feel a certain nostalgia for the ‘simpler times’ of 2016.)
But amidst this tumult and uncertainty, Hornby presents us with two endearing and genuinely likeable characters; middle class Mum and English teacher Lucy, who is white, and Joseph, a twenty-two-year-old Black man who is working several jobs and not really sure what he wants to do with his life. They meet when Joseph is working at the local butchers, a place frequented by Lucy’s neighbours who drop more on a few steaks than Joseph makes in a day.
They’re not a likely pairing; setting aside obvious differences in age, class, and background, they don’t seem to really have anything in common. Joseph recoils when Lucy talks about books, Lucy taps her foot cluelessly when Joseph plays her some of his music. And yet, despite all their disconnects, they fall for each other. And there is common ground found; their easy domesticity, the way Joseph connects with Lucy’s sons, the quiet and comfortable intimacy they fall into.
‘The weird thing about being his age was that you spent half the time dreaming about what might happen to you, and the other half trying not to think about it.’
But both are acutely aware that their relationship exists only in the interior world, as ‘something between brackets.’ There is a reluctance to let anyone from the outside in, an unease about how their obvious disparities will land with their contemporaries. It’s painfully self-aware – painful in a way that is also funny. Hornby has such a skill for crafting wry, observant dialogue that feels fresh and real, and this is one of the novel’s greatest strengths.
This isn’t a novel about Brexit, although it’s folded into the narrative with the same arguments that are now exhausting to hear regurgitated. The complacency of Lucy and her friends as to the immutable state of the Union is, of course, agonising in hindsight. The identity politics and deep divisions are never too far away.
Hornby, himself a white man, may raise eyebrows writing from two perspectives very different from his own lived experience. And yet I felt that it was territory he navigated well, acknowledging and giving space to institutional racism and clueless white people microaggressions alike; being aware that he is not an authority while still bringing important issues to light.
There’s a real emotional intelligence to the characters and to their dynamic, although Hornby spends so much page time with conversations about how their relationship can’t possibly work, I sometimes wondered how it actually did. But it’s still an astute and warm and witty novel, making for compelling – and sometimes hopeful – reading.