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Juliet, Naked, By Nick Hornby

What happens when your idol loves your girlfriend?

Announcing its bathetic register from the off, Nick Hornby's sixth novel opens in the men's toilet of an unremarkable music venue in Minneapolis. Annie and Duncan, an unmarried couple with an unevenly shared passion for the music of the American singer- songwriter Tucker Crowe, have made a pilgrimage there from Gooleness, the northern English seaside town in which they live, because it is the site of the mysterious event in June 1986 which, part-way through his tour in support of the classic break-up album Juliet, marked the beginning of Crowe's ongoing period of reclusiveness. Duncan is an academic but considers "Crowology" his life's real work, and runs Can Anybody Hear Me?, a website forum named after an obscure EP, dedicated to the obsessive search for hidden meaning in Crowe's life and music. Annie, who used to be a teacher but now runs the Gooleness museum, enjoys Crowe's music, but has had to tolerate Duncan's passion as one might a mistress. Fifteen years into their stagnant and childless relationship, however, she is tiring of the arrangement.

Making up a credible fictional cultural figure, even an obscure and reclusive one such as Crowe, isn't easy, but Hornby has fun inventing and weaving into his story song titles, Wikipedia entries, snatches of lyrics and biographical mythology, until you catch yourself thinking that you ought to track down a copy of Juliet for yourself and hear what all the fuss is about. So it comes as almost as much of a surprise to the reader as it does to Annie when Crowe emails her and, unbeknown to her partner, they begin a correspondence which will cause all three of them to reassess and resist the stasis of their lives.

Being about relationships, male emotional retardation and obsessive musical fandom, Juliet, Naked will appeal to those Hornby readers who still consider High Fidelity his funniest and finest novel. But it's a more mature work, about older people with a greater inertial force acting upon them, and more keenly felt regrets: the Blood on the Tracks to High Fidelity's Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. It is also very much in a minor key.

It is a largely interior novel, of which it might be said that not a lot happens. Consider that the book's major act of betrayal is Annie's decision to listen to Juliet, Naked, a newly released album of Tucker Crowe demos, before Duncan: "It felt like one of those moments in a relationship... that would look completely innocuous to an outsider, but which were packed with meaning and aggression. Annie could imagine telling Ros at work that Duncan had gone absolutely nuts because she played a new CD when he wasn't at home, and Ros would be suitably appalled." It might well have seemed a minor and innocuous incident, were it not that Hornby's genius is precisely for empathising in this way; for describing the small, private details of a relationship; the fleeting thoughts that cumulatively amount to a person's feelings for another.

And here is Annie again, still vacillating over whether or not to play the CD: "Oh, this is ridiculous, she thought. Told herself, anyway, telling oneself being a more self- conscious mode of self-communication, and thus a more efficient way of lying, than thinking." It is the kind of subtle, self-reflexive analysis that another novelist would keep to himself, if he thought of it at all, but that is the essence of Hornby's writing. If his prose wasn't so refreshingly transparent and conversational, and his subject matter so seemingly prosaic, the sophistication of his enquiries into human nature would be recognised more often.

Juliet, Naked has only a bare plot, and the most tentative of romances, but it is about feelings being reawakened, small lives being expanded, and the function that art can play in the process. It is only gently comic, but subtle and insightful, and really quite touching.

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