I tore through About a Boy in a couple of days, even staying up late into the night to finish it, which I haven’t done in ages. This isn’t to say that it’s the best book I’ve read in the past year, but it is the most readable, largely thanks to its very British sense of humour. I haven’t read a lot of books whose priority is to be funny, but those that I have, such as The Finkler Question, seem to use the same kind of humour, full of understatement, overstatement and comically frank descriptions. And like The Finkler Question, About A Boy isn’t just aiming to make you laugh: it also has something to say about some pretty dark themes, and late 20th Century England.
It does this by focusing on the unlikely friendship between Marcus, a socially awkward twelve year old burdened with a chronically depressed mother, and Will, a thirty-six year old man-child who lives a care-free life on the royalties of a Christmas pop-song written by his father. The two meet at a picnic for single parents: Marcus is there with one of his mum’s friends; Will is there because he has fabricated a son to pick-up single mothers.
At first, as you’d expect of such opposite personalities, they hate each other. But they are quickly and irrevocably bonded, first, when Will uses his talent for lying to conceal Marcus’s accidental killing of a duck, and second, when they return to Marcus’s house to find that his mother, Fiona, has attempted suicide.
Afterwards, Will is struck by one of his momentary feelings of charity, and decides to take Marcus under his wing. He soon regrets this decision when he realises that Marcus and Fiona are the kind of earnest crazy people that stand around a piano and sing Joni Mitchell with their eyes closed. But he loses his say in the matter when Marcus starts turning up at his door every day to escape the harsh realities of his school and home life.
As you’d expect, the two learn from each other in what what is a slightly unusual coming of age story. Will is repeatedly struck by Marcus’s vulnerability and innate goodness, and develops a genuine affection for the boy. It is not until he falls in love, however, that he reflects on his lack of achievement and connection, and begins to form deeper emotional bonds with the people that have stumbled into his life. Will, as an astoundingly shallow cad, is a more entertaining character, but his arc is less significant.
It is Marcus who undergoes the more profound transformation. In part, he does this by drawing on his considerable intelligence and inner fortitude, but he must also conform to the cynical values of the society around him. Marcus’s mother, Fiona, has effectively crippled him socially through well-meaning but naive advice such as not being a “sheep” and following social trends. Will provides him with not only a window into popular culture, but also a more realistic perspective. Thanks to his influence, Marcus realises that his home and school life are “shit”, and he learns how to express his anger. He also realises that his mother may not know best, and he uses his reasoning to develop his own value system.
By the end of the novel, he surpasses both his mother and Will terms of maturity, but his maturation is bittersweet: he has gained even greater strength and is more likely to survive into adulthood, but he also loses much of what makes him unique, becoming a more typical surly teenager. He is no longer innocent, and perfectly capable of exploiting his mother’s emotional weakness if it will get him what he wants.
About a Boy reads as a light book, but it does deal with the very serious theme of suicide. And while it occasionally suffers from sitcom emotional spectrum syndrome (having to continually tell jokes, even during moments where it is detracts from the story), there are some genuinely poignant moments in which Hornby’s simple language works really well, such Fiona’s suicide note to Marcus:
“And it isn’t that I’m so unhappy that I don’t want to live anymore. That’s not what it feels like. It feels more like I’m tired and bored and the party’s gone on too long and I want to go home.”
Fiona, though doesn’t come off well as a character, although culpability for her attempted suicide is somewhat confused by a brief observation in the last chapter linking Marcus’ character change with her improved mental health.
The novel’s title is partially a reference to the Nirvana song About a Girl, and its climax revolves around Kurt Cobain’s suicide. It is a less than satisfying conclusion to an otherwise enjoyable novel. Fiona’s depression is resolved without fireworks and the other plot lines addressed are underdeveloped, making it feel as if Hornby ran out of things to say with the characters. Perhaps in recognition of this, the ending to the Hugh Grant starring film version was significantly altered, and although it’s extremely unrealistic, it is more fulfilling.
Still, you could do a lot worse than About a Boy. It’s a fun, enjoyable, unpretentious read, perfect for a long plane flight or a holiday where you just want to relax and read about the humour that can be found in a mildly traumatised pre-teen, a shallow compulsive liar and suicide.