All Together Now

gill hornbyI do wonder what it must be like to be Gill Hornby. Not only does she have a famous brother to live up to, but she has now decided to write books in more or less the same generic space, thus leaving herself open to endless comparisons with him. If it had been me, I’d have changed my name, but given entertainment’s current adoration of the already-recognisable, perhaps it is considered to be a tick in the right publicity box. This is in some ways a bit of an echoey book, reminding me of the feel-good film, The Full Monty, except with choirs rather than strippers, so, more decorum, less radicalism, but definitely a book that wants to leave you with a smile on your face.

All Together Now, is about a community choir in the anonymous commuter belt town of Bridgeford, a place in other words, where community is hard pushed to flourish. When the novel opens, the choir’s beloved leader, Constance, has been seriously injured in a car crash, and those who remain are somewhat adrift without her. Responsibility falls on the shoulders of Annie, a 50-something mother-of-three tending a painfully empty nest. Even her husband, James, has become caught up in a tricky law case that necessitates him spending his weeks in London. Annie is a Salt of the Earth type, the woman who remembers all the names of the children her children were at school, with, the woman who bothers to vacuum the carpet of community areas, the woman who takes half an hour to walk down the main street because she knows everyone working in the charity shops (‘Fortunately, she was a social athlete in peak condition.’)

Annie drums up new members for the choir with a great deal of arm-twisting. She coerces single mother, Tracy, who has only scorn for communal activities but a voice the choir needs, and newly-divorced Bennett, a man who is uptight and uncool and socially a tad inept (‘he found himself wishing [his ex-wife] had left him a helpful little folder, like landladies did for holiday rentals: a starter information pack for the rest of his own life.’) However, he also has a voice trained from childhood as a choral scholar. Throw in some extras – Jazzie, the council estate child who wants to save herself for The X-Factor, Lewis and his disabled daughter, Katy, elderly codgers Pat and Lynn (think the two old men up on the balcony in The Muppets) and we are all set for social comedy.

In fact, there is a lot of rather witty and admirable writing in the novel. The multi-purpose building where the choir hold their meetings, for instance, is described rather amusingly:

The stolid, mixed-material, mongrel-architectural Coronation Hall sat back from the corner of Church Street in an apron of its own car park and stared out at the town like a plain and disapproving old aunt. It eschewed comfort – its windows were high, its floors dull and dusty, its walls a distempered cream – and offered only the basic barrier to the elements. A bit of weather, in its opinion, never hurt anybody; if it could talk, it would tell you to put on a vest.’

And its also excellent on the way that community spirit has withered and died in so many small towns. When the local Talent Show is held, Tracey observes the sparse attendance and imagines ‘the rest of the town down there, sunk into its armchairs, with its backs to them.’ Those bustling, extrovert planners and muckers-in like Annie are portrayed as both essential to community life and also somewhat ridiculous, easy to mock. But Gill Hornby is astute in the way she sows her seeds of doubt; what if all this keeping-to-ourselves business, safely barricaded as it may be, ultimately ends in loneliness? Visiting the hospital to serenade Constance with the choir, Tracey observes Annie interacting with her group of bed-ridden friends and remarks that:

they were all Annies, these women: doers of their bit, thinkers of others, busiers of bodies. They were all Annies and they were all knackered. Who was going to take over from them all, when they couldn’t do it any more?…. [But] at least they were not alone. They were ageing and they were knackered but, clearly, they still mattered. Their beds were surrounded by cards and flowers and home-made cakes. The primary school had done a frieze for the retired librarian; the Sunday school had made a little garden in a box for the church volunteer.’

Tracy, as you may be gathering, is the focal point for change; she has to let go of her teenage son, embrace community activities, give up the secret she’s keeping and stop being too cool for school. She’s a great character and well-drawn, but Gill Horby has an odd way of not quite nailing her scenes, particularly in the first half of the book, so we don’t get to witness exactly what makes the difference. We tend to catch up with Tracey as she contemplates her altered feelings, which isn’t as satisfying. Also the writing is at times too frenetically jolly, bouncing us along Tiggerishly, subsuming all events to the comedy. And of course the funniest things often come hard on the heels of what’s sad and upsetting, or too poignant, a defence against emotion and a relief from it. But there’s not much light and shade here.

However, what Gill Horby does best in this book is describe the life-affirming vitality, the sheer joy, that singing in a choir can produce, and she does this in spades. Apparently you can download the soundtrack to the novel, as it were, and I’ll bet a lot of readers won’t be able to resist. Hornby does have an eye for a catchy song. All in all this is a fun, warm-hearted novel with some laugh-out-loud lines. Steer clear if you want a bit of darkness, but hand out to anyone who needs to stop singing the blues.

 

13 thoughts on “All Together Now

  1. I wonder if the television powers that be are going to latch onto this and make a version of it as a latch on to the work that Gareth Malone has been doing with community choirs? Perhaps it has been written with that or a film in mind.

  2. As well as being Nick Hornby’s sister, she’s also the wife of Robert Harris which must be something of a mixed blessing in terms of publicity – all those comparisons. I wonder if Alex is right about a TV adaptation – it sounds like perfect Sunday evening viewing.

  3. You have to appreciate a novel that comes with an accompanying soundtrack! Music must run in the family? I hadn’t realized that NH had a sister or that she wrote–I’m not sure, if the story appealed and I had wanted to read it in any case, if it would matter that she has a famous writer brother–I don’t think it would either sell a book or make me set it back on the shelf, but maybe the name recognition isn’t exactly a bad thing? Hopefully once that momentary comparison passes the work stands on its own!

  4. Thanks for the insightful review, Victoria. I can think of a couple of friends who might enjoy this novel – it does sound ripe for a television adaptation. I’m so off the pace when it comes to contemporary literature like this…I didn’t know Gill Hornby was related to Nick!

  5. Oh, you’ve got Seven Days in the Art World! Good book.
    Love your review, as always. You really do get right at the heart of describing the flavour of a book.

  6. An accompanying soundtrack, you say? Sounds marvelous! I’m going to have to look this one up and see if it’s a suitable book for my dad — he loves books with happy endings and he LOVES stories about struggling choirs. Might make a nice Christmas gift!

  7. I remember that Nick Hornby mentions her a few times in Fever Pitch. She is the one who tells him that George Graham has been appointed Arsenal manager, a very important moment in Nick’s life.🙂

  8. I didn’t know Nick Hornby had a sister. Is this her first book? Very brave of her so kudos on that front. And it even sounds like it is enjoyable reading

  9. You know, my brother and I have tackled a few writing projects together in our time – screenplays, all – and I imagine if he were to tackle nonfiction or novel writing it would be very similar to what I try and do – we appreciate the same literature (except for raging fights over Jane Eyre) and trade books back and forth all the time, and buy each other huge book stacks for Christmas. So, yeah – I really think we would write in the same genre, if he weren’t busy with his dream of owning his own restaurant!

  10. Pingback: Pitch-Perfect Wry Charm: All Together Now by Gill Hornby | Bay State Reader's Advisory

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