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Nick Hornby Goes A Long Way To Speak of Suicide

When Nick Hornby spoke about his latest novel at Book Expo America in New York this past June, he said his idea for the plot arose upon hearing that there are popular sites and dates for suicides. What if, he asked, a few people met at such an inauspicious time and place? A Long Way Down is the story of Martin, Maureen, Jess and JJ who meet on the roof of Toppers House on New Years Eve.

The four characters are worlds apart—Martin is a former TV morning show celebrity who has lost his wife and children after a humiliating scandal that landed him in prison, Maureen is the mother of a severely brain damaged son, Jess is the volatile daughter of the Minister for education in a family that has already lost a daughter, and JJ is a musician who has just lost his band and girl.

Although each is very different, they all share the same sadness. “Even though we had nothing in common beyond that one thing, that one thing was enough to make us feel like there wasn’t anything else… Maureen knew that I was unhappy, because of where she met me, and that meant she knew the most important thing about me.”nick_hornby

The unlikely foursome decide to wait six weeks until the next big holiday on the suicide calendar—Valentines Day—and agree to meet sporadically in the meantime. What follows is a journey sometimes profound and often funny told through the voices of the four authors.

I say “voices” rather than “eyes” because each narrator is indeed a writer. They each have their own writing styles. For an author whose last two books were adapted for film, it was interesting to see this emphasis on the text. Martin has a sarcastic wit to his tone, Maureen omits profanity “f—–” JJ is the most artistic-philosophical and Jess, the least educated, mentions not knowing how to properly use quotation marks and decides at one point to transcribe dialogue “like a play.”

There are also allusions to other suicide authors, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and so on, in fact, the Toppers House Four at one point decide to try a book group, a prospect that fails at its first meeting. “The book group thing was JJ’s idea. He said people do it a lot in America; read books and talk about them. Martin reckoned it was becoming fashionable here, too, but I’d never heard of it, so it cant be that fashionable…”

For the Prosac generation, A Long Way Down has a lot to talk about. It deals with the heavy issues: loss of life, art and empathy, with humor, wit and friendship.