Subscriber OnlyBooks

Just Like You: Nick Hornby’s contemporary love story nestled in a Brexit novel

A relationship blossoms between a young black man and middle-aged white woman in Nick Hornby’s ninth novel

Just Like You
Just Like You
Author: Nick Hornby
ISBN-13: 978-0241338551
Publisher: Viking
Guideline Price: £16.99

Michèle Roberts’s exquisite recent memoir Negative Capability, succinctly expresses the imaginative power of authentic fiction by writing: “My own tiny pain helped me think about others’ huge ones.” It is the writer’s capacity to embody the life of another with respect, consideration and sensitivity that separates great fiction that reads as truth from a false impersonation of life.

When the creative ambition extends to creating a character that is a different gender, race, class or religion than your own, the stakes are heightened. Recent years in particular have seen a welcome discourse on cultural appropriation – where members of the dominant culture adopt elements of the minority culture and there is an imbalance of power.

How should, for example, white novelists approach writing from the perspective of a black character to avoid this? Such is the challenge Hornby faces in his ninth novel, Just Like You, where the dual narrative is split between the voice of a young, black, working-class man, Joseph, and a middle-aged, middle-class, white woman, Lucy.

Renowned for his brilliant portrayal of the interior lives of men struggling to survive in a society infused with toxic masculinity, it seems a brave and bold move for Hornby to create two protagonists that are not Just Like Him – especially in this era of cancel culture, when the work will be scrutinised for any missteps.


We know Hornby is brilliant at writing about men not unlike himself – the phenomenal success of High Fidelity and About a Boy, alongside his ground-breaking memoir Fever Pitch, pay testament to that. What may be less obvious is his record in writing so beautifully about women. Hornby’s award-winning film adaptations of Colm Toibín’s Brooklyn, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Lynn Barber’s memoir An Education demonstrate a profound understanding of the female psyche. Hornby grew up in a house full of women and it shows.

Multicultural stomping ground

All this to say, Hornby is a writer who has proven himself time and again to be hugely empathetic – his bittersweet social commentaries are mindful and devoid of the sort of cavalier stereotyping that would disable another writer in his position from crafting this story as successfully.

The novel is set in north London, the multicultural stomping ground that Hornby also calls home. His trademark observations of human beings and their doings deliver the reader properly funny moments – his skewering of the particular idiosyncrasies of this London borough is comedy gold: “Long Blonde shook her head in despair, as if her friend’s refusal to push through a crowd of people so that she could be served when it wasn’t her turn was precisely what was wrong with her in all areas of life.” Perhaps this is the great strength of Hornby; his novels have always been such good company, and his ninth is no exception.

On an average Saturday morning in this affluent neighbourhood’s independent butcher, Lucy and Joseph meet across a crowded glass counter. They are divided by gender, class, race, education and age, meeting for the first time in an England that is divided by the upcoming Brexit referendum. They say opposites attract, but for these star-crossed lovers Hornby is sincerely testing the theory. And yet, if it’s not working with your “usual type”, why keep repeating the same dysfunctional path?

The connection between the couple reads completely authentic – the flawed, complex and endearing characters ring true, and their turbulent evolution from secret affair to public declaration of love is devastatingly poignant while also illuminated by the characteristic Hornby wit.

Truly electric

Where Hornby’s prose becomes truly electric is his searing portrayal of the effects of alcoholism on a marriage and a family – and the divorce it culminates in. There is no shying away from the brutal truth, which is presented without any sentimentality but with great understanding. Lucy says of her alcoholic ex-husband: “She would know him for the rest of her life, and one day, if they put enough years between the past and the future, she could imagine the rage subsiding. But subsiding rage was not the same thing as love.”

Hornby presents us with a contemporary love story nestled in a Brexit novel – reading pre-pandemic political strife feels akin to picking at the scab of fresh wounds – but the juxtaposition between Britain’s problems with racism on a macro level and the micro-aggressions experienced by Joseph and witnessed by Lucy works extremely well.

Graham Greene spoke of the “splinter of ice in the heart of a writer”, and this mellow read from Hornby suggests a slight thawing on his part. But perhaps that is just what we need: good company, great laughs and a gentle poking reminder of the humanity of those we think we don’t understand. Who knows what the future will bring us but, as Hornby writes, what we have “is a present and that’s what life consists of”.

Helen Cullen

Helen Cullen

Helen Cullen, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and critic