Book Review: How To Be Good

How To Be Good (2001), by Nick Hornby

How To Be Good is a sharp and funny horror story for Guardian readers and liberals everywhere. It hits us right where it hurts, in our oh-so-tender consciences, and explores the limits of empathy. In short, it’s a guilt trip.

The narrator, Katie Carr, is a doctor and mother of two children, Tom and Molly. Their father is David, writer of the “Angriest Man in Holloway” column in the local newspaper. They have a very comfortable, middle class life in a sought after North London neighbourhood, where house prices have gone through the roof, and gentrification is in full swing.

So far so good. But Katie is not a happy woman. She is irritated by “heart-sink patients,” like Barmy Brian, because there’s nothing she can can do for him – yet he keeps turning up at the surgery. Worse still, her husband is not just the Angriest Man in Holloway for the purposes of his column, he’s the Angriest Man Everywhere Else, particularly in their marriage.

So Katie begins an affair while away at a conference. She blurts out to David, in the course of a superficially unrelated phone call, that she wants a divorce. This is the catalyst for David, self-righteous bastard that he is, to take the moral high ground. If that wasn’t bad enough, he has an epiphany while visiting a spiritual healer – the appallingly platitudinous DJ Goodnews – and completely turns his life around by becoming a good and deeply caring person.

Trouble is, DJ Goodnews really does seem to have the healing touch and David really is a changed man. It’s not a religious conversion, which is at least a comfort to Katie, but there are toxic levels of insufferable smugness and an absolute certainty that he’s doing the Right Thing. He pulls the ground out from under her feet by doing things that are incontrovertibly good and just, in and of themselves, but without any thought for context or the feelings of his wife and children. David is aided and abetted by DJ Goodnews, who comes to live with them, all the better to formulate their plans to make the world a Better Place.

David gives all their spare cash to a beggar after an evening out, tries to give the meal cooked for Katie’s parents to the homeless, and conspires with DJ to persuade the street to take homeless teenagers into their homes. And this is only the start. You see Katie’s dilemma? Her comfortable life, with its privileges and privacy, is swept away and if she objects – which she does very much – then it’s instant guilt and a painful questioning of her own liberal values. Even divorce is not an option since Katie has realised that her lover does not represent a feasible new beginning. In any case, she has emotionally invested everything in their marriage and family. How can she throw it all away?

I was mentally shouting at Katie to take the children and get out of this cult while they can, on tenterhooks as Hornby surgically lays bare the quivering nerve endings of the liberal, middle-class conscience. You really feel for this woman. In fact, there is a resolution and it’s a surprising one.

An extremely, funny, witty, and perceptive novel. It is also excruciating to read.

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