Novel of the week

How to be Good

Nick Hornby <em>Viking, 288pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0670888230

Nick Hornby has raised his game. The setting for his third novel is, once again, a middle-class enclave of north London. Arsenal FC and a certain record shop are duly mentioned in passing. But this time, the narrator is not some feckless bloke struggling to retain his youthful irresponsibility. It is a woman, Katie Carr, a GP, wife and mother. "The only time when I am not performing one of those three roles," she tells us, "is when I am in the bathroom." Hornby seems quite at home in her psyche, and makes her credible by not trying too hard. The only medical jargon he slips in, for example, is the term "heartsink", which denotes a patient with depressingly intractable problems.

Katie is married to David, "The Angriest Man in Holloway", as it says at the top of his column in the local paper. His column attacks targets such as old people on buses, who never have their money ready and always stand up ten minutes before their stop, "obliging them to fall over frequently in an alarming and undignified fashion". David also writes corporate brochures and has a bad satirical novel lying for ever unfinished in a desk drawer.

At the outset, Katie asks David for a divorce. She does this by mobile phone from a car park in Leeds, where she has gone for a conference. She surprises herself, as she didn't think she was the sort of person to try to dump her husband by mobile; but if you do such a thing, "you cannot really claim that it is unrepresentative, in the same way that Lee Harvey Oswald couldn't really claim that shooting presidents wasn't like him at all. Sometimes we have to be judged by our one-offs." Oswald did make that very claim, and many people believe him, but Katie's casual endorsement of the lone-gunman theory is a character note, indicating someone with her feet on the ground.

Katie is not in control, however. She called David only to remind him about their daughter Molly's dental appointment. The conversation degenerates into point- scoring, and David manoeuvres Katie into saying the D-word first. Hornby lays out the pattern with grisly accuracy. They don't get divorced, because David doesn't want to - he just wants to put Katie in the wrong. Shortly afterwards, however, he has a change of personality. An alternative therapist called DJ GoodNews sorts out his bad back by the laying-on of hands, and a strange side effect is that David becomes full of kindness and social concern.

Don't panic. GoodNews is not Jesus. Even though he also cures Molly's eczema and the aching joints of Katie's heartsink Mrs Cortenza, a psychological explanation is just about possible, as with the "miracles" in Graham Greene's The End of the Affair. And in person, GoodNews comes across as your average New Age twerp. He wears turtle brooches in his pierced eyebrows, because turtles "see stuff that we can't, yeah?" He thinks he gained his powers from taking Ecstasy in his DJ days: the drug rearranged his molecules or something, like when Spiderman was bitten by the radioactive arachnid.

Anyway, under GoodNews's influence, David starts trying to repair his marriage, giving away money and possessions, having a homeless kid to stay in the spare room and persuading neighbours to do likewise. Katie is disturbed, "nostalgic for the days when hatred was our common currency".

Katie moves out, but doesn't dare tell the children, so she leaves for her bedsit round the corner only after they are asleep each night, and she returns and puts on her dressing gown before they get up each morning. Here and throughout, Hornby's humour is disillusioned without being bitter, and sympathetic without being mawkish. The portrayal of child characters, a weak point in his last book, is surer and wiser here: not too cute.

Although the twin themes of altruism and domestic grief never quite mesh properly, this novel is a good, dark, espresso-strength comedy that nobody else could have written.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A spin too far