Star rating – 7/10
Nick Hornby’s latest novel involves a subtle, bare plot, and employs his usual conversational writing style, which inevitably leads to him not being given the recognition he so deserves by the literary establishment. ‘Juliet Naked’ is a cleverly observed study of fortysomething male obsession with music and fandom - which is fuelled by the power of the internet to link similarly obsessed people (mainly men) across the world, and to therefore sustain and fan the flames of their obsession long after they should have died out. It is also bitingly accurate about the inability of some of the male species to create and sustain meaningful relationships.
Duncan and Annie have one such unhealthy 15 year relationship. The boredom and inertia of their lives in the bleak east coast town of Gooleness positively seeps from the pages. Annie works in a local museum where the event of the decade was a shark washed up on a local beach that she is now curating an exhibition to commemorate. So people there clearly need to get out more. And Annie has had to share her man with another, the American singer songwriter turned reclusive wild man Tucker Crowe. We join the couple on holiday in America making an inevitable pilgrimage to the site of Tucker’s mysterious disappearance from the music scene followed an alleged incident in a toilet. Duncan is obsessed with all things related to Tucker, and spends most of his time and energy discussing the minutiae of his life (or actually what his fans think his life is – as they don’t actually know anything about him since he disappeared from view).
Duncan is busy being unfaithful to Annie with someone at his school, but Annie is taking infidelity to a whole new level when she opens a package addressed to Duncan, and plays the first new material released by Crowe in over 20 years before Duncan has a chance to hear it. Clearly an unforgivable offence. When Duncan does hear it, he quickly writes a rave review on the Tucker Crowe website that he runs, ‘Can Anybody Hear Me?’ In a fit of pique Annie writes a much more objective review herself and posts it alongside Duncan’s. After all, this material is just a solo acoustic version of a previous album, which is much inferior to the original in her eyes.
This is where the fun really starts, as the real Tucker Crowe actually responds to her email, and tends to agree with her assessment of the material. The developing relationship between Annie and Tucker is nicely observed, and written in true Hornby style. Duncan’s reaction to it is amusing and inevitable. Hornby is at his best when writing about the mechanics of music and how people relate to it, as with his earlier classic ‘High Fidelity’. Whilst this novel does not quite hit the high spots of some of his early work for me, it is still an entertaining, amusing and honest account of relationships, and why we are sometimes so bad at them, for all sorts of reasons.