The timing of Nick Hornby’s ninth novel is possibly a little unfortunate. Not only was it written before the Black Lives Matter movement intensified discussions on cultural appropriation but, four years after the event, we’ve read just about enough on the Brexit vote.
The two protagonists of Just Like You are a 42-year-old white member of Islington’s chattering classes, and a black man of 22 who lives with his mother and has a series of “portfolio” jobs. Lucy, a mother and school head of department, meets Joseph when he serves her braying contemporaries at their local high-end butchers, where those willing to shell out £122 on fillet steaks and rolled loins jostle their way in on a Saturday morning.
The novel begins in the spring before the Brexit vote, and Lucy is chatting in the butchers’ queue with a frightful semi-friend who booms out her hypotheses about Lucy’s sex life, while aiming lewd innuendo at Joseph. She insists on calling him “Joe” and wants to “eat him up”.
While Hornby skewers this particular milieu – his home territory – with horrible accuracy, and is truly funny, creating an impressive portrait of the internal life of a woman in her 40s, his attempt to inhabit the point of view of a black man in his 20s sits uneasily. Amid all the unwinnable arguments about who is allowed to write about whom, or from whose viewpoint, this is a brave, well meant if sometimes jarring attempt. The youth-speak alone, the “pengs” and “lols”, the DJ friend called £Man and girl called Jaz in her spangly top and face glitter seem at best dated, even for 2016.
But the novel gallops straight into something that is immensely readable, sharp-eyed and at times hilarious. Lucy and Joseph’s love lives are its chief focus, with a backdrop of Brexit debates and the familiar Hornby excursions into football and music. Lucy is set up with seemingly suitable men in the wake of her divorce, including a white, middle-aged novelist, while Joseph gets work as babysitter to her two sons, who adore him. There are many false starts and diversions, in which Lucy fears making “a fool of herself by mooning over a young man nearly half her age”, and Joseph is approached for a date with a girl his age that only reveals his real feelings about Lucy. But Joseph and Lucy become a couple, their relationship primarily consisting of having sex and watching The Sopranos, initially “delicate, like a houseplant, with no ability to survive out in the world”.
Hornby pulls off that surprisingly difficult feat: creating genuinely likable protagonists. We are rooting for them throughout, longing for their age-gap, class-gap, interracial relationship to work despite obstacles, while their various attempts to date more ostensibly suitable partners fail to catch fire: “there would be someone, a cheese-shop owner or a human-rights lawyer, for her somewhere”. Long discussions about Brexit, episodes of casual and overt racism, and constant ruminations about race and background fail to obscure the fact that this is, at heart, a light and enjoyable relationship novel that is thin on plot but entertaining in classic Hornby fashion.
Lucy and Joseph drift apart, time passes, and other people fill the gap, but after a weekend in the country, they reunite. The simple fact of their love is convincing; what is less effectively conveyed is just how this relationship works, neither the glue nor the chemistry truly apparent.
As ever, the true delight of a Hornby novel lies in his extraordinarily acute social observation, and in the sheer brilliance of exchanges that sing, zing and capture every nuance of real speech. The book seems almost TV-ready, as page after page of breathtakingly recognisable dialogue is laid out like a screenplay, and even texts seem lifted straight off the phone. The school quiz night with its Mexican buffet and entitled liberals treating Joseph like “an unexploded bomb” is a masterpiece of farce.
The Brexit vote comes and goes, the arguments from both sides rehashed, but this is territory already so well covered by Jonathan Coe and others, and so well known by the rest of us, that it feels redundant. Just Like You could stand alone as the ladlit-meets-mumlit social satire that it is, its vicious wit paradoxically interwoven with tenderness and empathy. The Observer called Hornby “the poet of the everyday”, and this is exactly what he is. Little escapes his eye. Certain pleased-with-themselves tribes – indeed the metropolitan elite flushed out by Brexit – have rarely been so successfully pinned to a page and left to squirm.
• Joanna Briscoe’s latest novel is The Seduction (Bloomsbury). Just Like You is published by Viking (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.