The author Nick Hornby, of best-sellers About a Boy and High Fidelity, has already shown us in How to Be Good that he can keep it sounding real, even when the main character is female. His latest novel, Funny Girl, proves the point that he can understand what goes on in women’s minds, perhaps a little bit better than they do themselves!
Protagonist Barbara Parker wished ‘that she could be happy, of course she did; she wished she wasn’t different.’ And yet, this woman with the pin-up girl looks and her dream of making people laugh still packed up her bags (and her Northern accent) to make it big in London.
Nick Hornby usually sets his cast down in the present day, but this time, he’s chosen London in the 60s for a backdrop, with its free love, politics, discos and BBC sitcoms. To describe this as a historical novel would bring about images too sombre for its comical style of writing. The 60s are explored with a mixture of fictional and non-fictional elements that combine into an ingenious look into the world of fifty odd years ago.
Sophie Straw, as Barbara’s agent chooses to rename her, resembles a real life Norma Ann Sykes, also known as Sabrina – Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe. She is not amused. She starts out her adventure taking a job at Derry & Toms, a London department store that actually existed back then. When she does get within a stone’s throw of her dream job, it is Tom Sloan (who really was the Head of Light Entertainment at the BBC at the time) that she must meet and convince.
Whilst the juxtaposition of fact and fiction gives the story an intriguing angle, the characters themselves are what give this text strength. What starts out as the story of a Blackpool girl inspired by Lucille Ball to become a comedy star, turns into a medley of life stories that seamlessly tune into each other in a way that few authors can achieve.
So, while Dennis hesitates at each step in life…
“In the past, he had found himself watching what everyone else was doing before committing himself firmly and irrevocably to tea or coffee.”
… Clive bumbles along.
“Because I’m your on-screen husband, and your off-screen…” he lets it trail off.
Sophie’s father, meanwhile, forgives her for not being there in his hour of need because, as she realises, “You could get away with anything, it seemed, if you were on the telly.” Scriptwriters Tony and Bill round up the set of central characters that make this a hilarious read.
Conversations flow easily and naturally in this book. At times, however, it is difficult to follow who is saying what in some lengthy discussions which are, unfortunately, almost devoid of asides from Hornby as to who is speaking. Another small but significant detail I object to is the ending. The journey here ultimately leads to the present day, and so also to the characters in their old age. The idea seems to be that this would show the differences in lifestyle between the then and now, as well as giving closure to Sophie’s initial dream. However, it seems to me that the end is a little deflated compared to the rest of the narrative.
Other than for these two flaws, the writing is superb. In fact, internationally known newspapers have given this novel praise aplenty. Unfortunately though, there were other reviewers who dissed this novel for not digging into the characters’ lives more and instead just skimmed over ideas and plot. The why to this probing eludes me, as comedy is usually to be taken at face value rather than prodded for deeper understanding and this is comedy, in its best form. It is useless to criticise such a novel in the same way as you would, say, a Thomas Hardy classic. That said, most of Hornby’s books, particularly this one, are worthy of being branded as modern classics. Indeed, despite grudgingly, I must concede that this might turn out to be a bigger novel than my all-time favourite, About a Boy.
The book for this review was kindly provided by Agenda Bookshop.