Hornby is so good at illustrating our life’s unspeakable pain with acerbic humour. A Long Way Down is not actually about committing suicide. It is about how life can open up another chapter if we don’t die. On another new year’s eve, it makes me ponder how many people out there need a heart-to-heart conversation, and how we can start this conversation … I wish everyone a prosperous 2017. I also hope that we all can take a moment to care for the people around us.
This was a book club selection, so I had no choice but to read it. What a surprise! I expected it to be rather trite, but found it instead to be quite touching.
The Queen, feeling melancholy, essentially wanders off on her own to make her way to Scotland to visit the decommissioned Royal Yacht Britannia in the hopes of rekindling some pleasant memories. Six people, all but one connected with the royal household, pair off in pursuit to retrieve her and ensure her safety. This isn’t merely about the Queen “going walkabout”, however. We get insight into the lives of each of these people.
Rajiv, a young man of Indian descent, still treated by many as a foreigner despite both he and his parents having been born in Britain, is smitten with Rebecca, who is employed at the royal stables, or Mews, and is far more comfortable in the company of horses than of people.
Luke is a young military officer, assigned to the household as an Equerry, had served in Iraq, is likely suffering from PTSD, and is filled with loneliness, grief, and guilt over the loss of a very close friend. He is thrown together with William, who has made the royal household his career, and finds himself strongly attracted to Luke as he shepherds him through the crisis of the Queen’s disappearance.
Anne, only 10 years younger than the Queen and an outcast from a noble family, is a Lady in Waiting. She is a widow and is estranged from her son, and dreads the prospect of her approaching retirement. In the pursuit she is paired off with Shirley, the Queen’s dresser, who for historic family reasons is openly hostile to Ladies in Waiting. For her part, Anne resents the intimacy of the relationship between Shirley and the Queen. The crisis reveals common experiences, and engenders mutual respect.
I find it odd that some people have complained about the details of all these characters as being a distraction from what they think is the point of the story: namely the Queen’s unplanned excursion. They seemed to have a preconceived notion of how the story should go, rather than just letting the story take them where it wants to go.
I enjoyed this story because it touches so sensitively and so well on so many parts of the human condition: aging, sadness, finding purpose, grief, loss, prejudice, and most importantly, love. It also gave me a new appreciation for Shakespeare’s Henry V.
There are a number of instances in Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird that would make fine fodder for an intellectual and political debate on what constitutes murder. Is it murder to shoot a prisoner fleeing from his incarceration? What if he is innocent of the crime for which he was convicted? What if he was convicted because social norms do not allow a man with his skin to not be held accountable in the face of an accusation, no matter how specious? Is it murder then? Is it murder to have been complicit in the accusation brought against him, knowing that it was without merit? Is it murder to stab a man in the chest with a kitchen knife? What if the man were chasing two helpless children, the offspring of a man with whom the pursuer is in conflict?
And these are just two of the layers one peels through while turning the pages of Lee’s perennial tale of coming-of-age in Depression-era Alabama. Thought Jean Louise (Scout) Finch is generally considered the central character (she does narrate the story, after all), this novel portrays a universal coming-of-age – of Scout and her brother Jem, their father Atticus, their block, the town in which they live, the community therein. Harper Lee grounds a tale of seismic events in the day-to-day happenings of a small, fiercely independent girl.
Of course I read this book in high school, but I hadn’t read it in over 15 years, so it was a joy to rediscover the story as an adult. I was led back to it by an online article from Australia, holding up the novel as the only parenting book one will ever need. It was an interesting article, and I owe it a debt of gratitude for leading me back to the book.
Series update: And speaking of precocious young women, Flavia de Luce is back for her third adventure. This time around – in A Red Herring Without Mustard– the 11-year-old chemist must uncover who beat a Gypsy woman nearly to death in her caravan and left a shady character hanging from a de Luce family fountain with a lobster pick in his nose. Chemistry does not play as heavily in the actual detection this time around, but rather features more as a refuge Flavia seeks when events in the wider world become too much for her. Many questions remain, but we get to know a little more about Harriet this time around. The one question that does continue to hang ponderously over Flavia is this: when will Inspector Hewitt realize that he will not be able to keep Flavia out of his investigations, so it is better to include her from the outset?!