Even the cover of this book portrays Hugh Grant and an adorable and chubby Nicholas Hoult, and I think most people know the ‘About a boy’ film adaptation of 2002. Before the film, however, there was the coming of age novel, which is a lot less comical and deals with quite serious topics, such as suicide, depression, casual sex, bullying and loneliness. Also, in the book Nirvana is quite important, which was unfortunately left out completely in the film (even worse in fact, replaced by rap music..).
The novel has two main protagonists: 36-year-old Will Freeman, who believes he’s as hip as any teenager could only dream to be, and twelve-year-old Marcus Brewer, who has great difficulty bonding with anyone. Set in the 1990’s, Will spends his time ‘being cool’ basically, living off the royalties of some crappy song his father once wrote, by drinking a lot, partying, having casual sex and making sure his hair is perfect. Marcus lives with his suicidal mother, Fiona, who is a bit of a hippy, and he isn’t able, not for lack of trying though, to make any friends or become popular. His home life and the responsibility of taking care of his mum has turned him into an introvert and his only connection to another human being, is his depressed alternative mother. Needless to say, he has a hard time at school.
Will then comes up with the brilliant idea of picking up women through a single parents’ support group, where he invents a two-year-old son called Ned. Through these women, Suzie in particular, he eventually meets Fiona and Marcus. At first, Will thinks nothing of Marcus, except that he is a weird kid. He has never even owned a pair of trainers! But he gets used to the kid hanging around, until everything goes south when Marcus kills a duck.
The fact that Marcus accidently kills a duck at the park by chucking a loaf of bread at its head is not that important, but the fact that he comes home to his mother, who has overdosed on pills, is. The incident changes something vital for both Marcus and Will, when Marcus decides his mother might like a boyfriend to cheer her up, and he has set his eyes on Will. Will doesn’t like Fiona and it doesn’t work out, but he does try and help Marcus (though at first only for selfish reasons). He even buys him a pair of trainers, which get nicked after school of course. Marcus’ new love for Nirvana does earn him a friend however: 15-year-old moody Ellie, who sadly gets him arrested at some point. But in the end, both protagonists learn from each other: Marcus turns out to be the one who brings everyone together, forms his own opinions and has some friends because of it, and Will let’s go of his old ‘cool’ indifference towards the world and actually, for real, falls in love.
Starting off with the title, ‘About a boy’ is actually a reference to the Nirvana song ‘About a girl’: Nirvana plays a big part in the book. Ellie is a huge Nirvana fan and constantly gets into trouble at school for wearing her Kurt Cobain jumper, which is not part of the school uniform obviously. Even though Marcus and Ellie form an unlikely pair, they bond over Nirvana. Ellie is the one who teaches Marcus to not care as much about what other people think of him and to voice his own opinions. When Marcus goes to visit his dad, he brings Ellie along for support: she really is a bit like his big sister. But she’s not as uncaring as he had thought and is quite affected by Kurt Cobain’s death. Marcus can’t understand why she cares so much about him, but Ellie insists that he was the only one who understood her. When she sees a cardboard cutout of Kurt in a shop, she becomes unbelievably angry, as she feels they are trying to exploit his suicide. Her anger and violence result in their arrest, but it also results in Marcus being able to vent his anger towards his dad for the first time. I quite liked Ellie for that.
The character of Marcus was very likable to me. He’s such a tragic figure, but an adorable boy at the same time. For example, through his mother he has only learned to love Joni Mitchell and Mozart, and he has the terrible habit of humming songs with his eyes closed, out loud, in class, without him noticing it. The boy never stood a chance against bullies. I thought it interesting how the book deals with the problem of bullies, because there’s Will teaching him how to fit in more, but there’s also Ellie who teaches him to not give a shit and fight back. In the end, both help him a lot. Then there’s the massive responsibility he faces in taking care of his suicidal mother, which explains why at times he seems far too grown-up for a twelve-year-old, but at other times makes him seem very naïve and young: he can be quite wise one moment and incredibly vulnerable the next. Quite often, children turn into half-adults when something like that is expected of them, and Marcus is a great example of the depression that can occur in a child when they find they can’t fix it all on their own. In a way, Will brings him back to what it’s like to be a child again and that’s what I really liked about Will: he’s in fact a lot more than just the epitome of consumerism and laziness. At the same time, Marcus shows Will how vacant his life is, and so Marcus turns Will into more of an adult. This idea, the healing combination of those two characters that really are worlds apart, was a brilliant invention by Nick Hornby.
The style of writing is very British: covering deep and meaningful topics, but often with very dry humour. In the film this doesn’t come across as well as it does in the book, how Brits often deal with shit by making light of it, sort of. The ‘dead duck day incident’ is a great example, because the story of Marcus inadvertently killing a duck is quite funny, but in his mind it is forever connected to his mother’s suicide. He feels guilty and lost, both times, and he can’t fix it. The emotional depth of the book surprised me greatly when I first started reading the book, because Nick Hornby doesn’t lay anything on too thick, which I can appreciate. Also, the style of writing makes is very easy to read, in one go even, so I’d recommend this book to anyone really: housewives, hip bachelors, mothers, sons, English boys, foreign boys, punk girls and all introverts, read it! I know it’s a saying, but I can vouch for it when it comes to ‘About a boy’: You’ll laugh and you’ll cry, a lot.
Stop the exploitation of Kurt Cobain!-award, because I’m with Ellie on this one
Nick Hornby, About a boy (London, 1998)