At first, the plot of Nick Hornby’s new novel, Juliet, Naked, seems too close to that of his first novel, High Fidelity (1995).
At first, the plot of Nick Hornby’s new novel, Juliet, Naked, seems too close to that of his first novel, High Fidelity (1995). We have the no-longer-young man — Duncan this time — who refuses to move on in the usual ways (children, marriage, etc.) and devotes his time instead to pop music, and in particular to the reclusive singer-songwriter Tucker Crowe, a less famous (and fictional) peer of Dylan and Springsteen, who has not released anything since his masterpiece album, Juliet, in 1986. We also have the long-suffering girlfriend — this time, Annie. They live in Gooleness, a decaying seaside town in the north of England, where Duncan teaches at a college and Annie runs the local museum. Theirs is an unhappy relationship, with Annie desperate for fun and children (preferably somewhere else and with someone else) and Duncan living almost entirely through his passion for a has-been musician.
A quarter of the way through, however, the plot shifts; this book is not principally about Duncan, as it had seemed. It isn’t about his adoration of Tucker Crowe or even about his approaching break-up with Annie: rather, it is — oddly yet successfully — about an affair that blossoms between Annie and the reclusive former star who monopolises her boyfriend’s passions.
When an acoustic demo version (a ‘naked’ version) of Juliet is released, Duncan reviews it gushingly on a fan-site, which inspires Annie — who considers it rubbish — to post a damning yet incisive review, which prompts a pleasant email to her from Tucker Crowe himself, which in turn leads to a secret friendship. Contrary to the internet rumours that place him as a hairy, half-mad genius, Tucker is a bright, funny yet melancholic man in late middle-age, with a young son he adores and an inability to find happiness. He considers his music worthless but cannot move on and do something else: for him, as for Annie, life is a constant regret about what Larkin referred to as ‘time torn off unused’.
The novel switches between the three characters, with the focus on Annie and Tucker. Duncan has an affair with a colleague, tells Annie he’s leaving and then regrets it and wants to stay. Annie, though, kicks him out and gets on with her transatlantic flirtation — which stops being transatlantic when Tucker visits England with Jackson, his son, and becomes the first pop star since the Rolling Stones in 1964 to visit Gooleness.
Juliet, Naked is Hornby’s best novel to date. It is written with the author’s usual readable flow, with a style that somehow suggests (without being overt and therefore off-putting) an acquaintanceship between author and reader. This can make one underestimate the quality of the prose: the fact that the sentences are straightforwardly deployed can conceal their unfussy elegance and their wit. Most impressive is that Annie is fully realised as a character, notwithstanding that we are told very little about her past. She is occasionally too perfect — completely self-aware and alert to the subtext of any conversation, always conscious of other people’s clichés of word and action — and so can seem like a novelist’s proxy. The flipside of her intelligence and insight, however, is that we like her and want her to negotiate this defining period in her life successfully — whether that is with her nerdy ex-boyfriend, her ageing ex-rocker, or no one.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 12, 2009Tags: Fiction, Romance