Nick Hornby, author of About a Boy and High Fidelity, makes a comeback after a brief pause in his writing. His latest novel, Funny Girl, is a wonderfully light-hearted story about television production in the 1960s.
The protagonist is Barbara Parker, a beauty queen from Blackpool who rejects the crown given to her at her town’s pageant to pursue bigger dreams. She moves to London, hoping to follow in the path of her beloved comedian Lucille Ball. She wants to be seen beyond her good looks, and is eager to escape the confines of the North and take the capital by storm.
Hornby’s heroine’s road to fame is unrealistically simple, but that becomes part of the novel’s charm. Barbara soon becomes known as Sophie Straw, and goes on to star in a TV show written especially for her – “Barbara (and Jim)”.
The novel gives a vivid account of the1960s, a turning point in British culture. It was an era where people were becoming more open about sex, homosexuals were no longer persecuted and people were watching more and more TV. There were still the old-fashioned kind, who stubbornly resisted this change, but the younger generation applauded it. Hornby explores this dynamic world through a number of character perspectives. Issues like divorce and adultery, homosexuality and unexpected pregnancies, are all present in the background of the main plot – the TV series that the main characters are involved in. This allows a light-heartedness to be maintained throughout without lessening the importance of these topics.
Hornby does a wonderful job at developing each and every one of his characters’ personalities, and gradually unravelling the personal relationships amongst the group. As for the TV show they are working on, although many visual details are omitted due to the difficulties of presenting a television programme in novel form, you still get a clear idea of what it would be like on screen. An interesting addition to this was the use of contemporary photos and cartoons that heighten the sense of realism. These function as historical evidence for the background of the novel and continually blur the line between fact and fiction. At some points I found myself forgetting that the TV show was fictitious and wanting to see first hand what it would be like on screen. This confusion between fiction and history, is the mark of a good book and an excellent writer.
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