I recently saw An Education (splendid) and walked away in awe of how the British so deftly handle subtext. Of course I walked away in awe of several other things – Carey Mulligan’s performance and inordinately expressive mouth, and the thread of excitement that pulsed through the 1960s, but the subtext was equally as awe inspiring. I also walked away with firm resolve to actually read a Nick Hornby book as, hitherto, my Hornby literary experience was limited to snatched chapters whilst babysitting (you know, you always go for the same book and re-read the same first two chapters between when the child goes to bed and the parents get home).
The book I chose was 2001’s How to be Good and it is beyond good. It’s terrific. Excellent. Incredibly funny, razor sharp, bitingly clever – everything the back cover said it would be. Forget the actual premise of the novel; it was a lesson in how to be a good writer. It’s the kind of book that seems so effortlessly insightful, you want to stick your nose into the middle of it and snort, in the desperate hope you’ll inhale some of the author’s brilliance.
How to be Good is told through the voice of Katie Carr; doctor, mother, all round conventionally good person. Except her marriage is on the way out and she’s been having an affair and the book opens with her telling her husband, David, aspiring novelist and columnist (‘The Angriest Man in Holloway) she wants a divorce. Soon after, her husband meets DJ GoodNews, a spiritual healer who cures David of his general bitterness, and together they set out to change the world one homeless person at a time.
Good and bad, moral codes and first world guilt, idealism and reality – bit by bit, Hornby attempts to tease the strands of this almost irreparably tangled web and find, if not some sort of solution then a level of understanding. And he does it with wit and a painful incisiveness that is as uncomfortably honest as it is relatable. No preaching, no black and white versions of good and bad; just an artfully explored question that forms an innate part of the human condition.