Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby’s seventh novel is actually my first.

I’ve been a bit slow to join the swelling ranks but as a largely non-fiction reviewer I will admit that this was a refreshing winding back of the clock to 1960s Britain. Poised on the cusp of transcendental change (the Beatles were about to publish their first LP and gardeners in Britain might have been in for an extension of services following the Chatterley ban) it follows the somewhat predictable journey of buxom blonde Barbara Parker from Blackpool. Despite her success at becoming the local beauty queen and imminent marriage to one of the lecherous carpet owning businessmen who prowl around at these affairs she decides to escape from her royal duties and hare off to London town to fulfil her ambitions of becoming Britain’s version of Lucille Ball.

And while she does encounter an irksome flatmate and a money-hungry agent desperate to plaster her body painted ratios in explicit calendars, the newly christened Sophie Straw finds her niche as the star of a marital sitcom called Barbara (and Jim). Alongside her co-star Clive who is relegated to a life in parentheses, Sophie finds herself at the centre of a creative cohort.

There’s Tony and Bill who are the scriptwriters, the latter somewhat sexually ambiguous but committed to the engine that pays the bills and feeds the family while the latter wants to go beyond the established menu that the BBC serves up. And of course, there’s Sophie’s love interest (not Clive whom seems obvious but incapable of commitment and talent) but the Oxbridge producer and director Dennis who is recovering from his unfeeling wife’s betrayal as she canoodles with his antithesis, Vernon Whitefield, the high culture critic.

The novel is fun, suitably humorous (while never sharing much of Sophie’s actual material) and offers a generous insight into a changing landscape in Britain. Despite being somewhat predictable it nevertheless sustains the momentum of a television episode in its structure (and often in the omniscient narration) that is appropriate for the television series it chronicles and the novel’s namesake chapters.

It also wanders into that murky territory of historical fiction that makes you wonder, even briefly, if it’s worth doing a quick check on Wikipedia to ascertain if these folks actually did make it almost half a century ago. Littered with black and white images, excerpts from a BAFTA programme and ‘thank you’ notes, it is a wonderful blurring of fact and fiction without walloping you on the head with nostalgic sentimentalism.

But what is most appealing is that Hornby doesn’t overdress the set. There are some astute kernels amidst the off-screen entanglements, questions regarding comedy as suitable entertainment fare is a recurring motif and the characters are mostly well-drawn, though Dennis’ former wife certainly is struck with the wicked witch syndrome.

And if the metaphorical ferris wheel inevitably grinds to a halt many years later as the team are reunited for a stage production in Eastbourne (the reality is that in 2014 the Reunion of Barbara (and Jim) would hardly be a West End hit) there is no great earth-shattering awakenings.

Death, loss, addiction and failure have all had their toll but so the wheels turn.

The blurb provided by Penguin claims that Funny Girl ‘is about work, popular culture, youth and old age, fame, class and collaboration.’ It’s probably the weakest promo because while Hornby’s novel certainly may touch on those aspects mentioned above, it is in some ways much less, and that is to its credit.

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Dione is an Auckland based theatre director and writer with background in performance and community & cultural development. She works as a freelance arts journalist, guest lecturer and creative advisor on a range of different projects both in New Zealand and internationally. She is primarily a non-fiction reviewer who adores travelogues, history, memoirs and creative cooking texts. Read more at www.dionejoseph.com

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