Will and Marcus both live in London, a huge, bustling city. It is impossible to know everyone, but each area has its own community, and within that community people form various groups, made up of work colleagues, family and friends. Hornby has set the novel in and around Holloway, in north London, which is an area he knows and loves (Hornby lives in nearby Highbury).
At the start of the novel Marcus and his mother have only been living in London for two weeks, and Marcus finds it very different from Cambridge, where he used to live. He thinks that Holloway has
nice bits and ugly bits. The book looks at the way that we all need our own communities for companionship, love and support. If we try to resist belonging to such a group, we find ourselves isolated. Will thinks that if he keeps a distance between himself and the outside world, never allowing himself to become too close to another person, then he will not be hurt or disappointed.
On the other hand, Marcus feels afraid because he only has his mother, and after her failed suicide attempt, he desperately tries to bring other people into their network so that, in the event of her trying again, he will not be left alone. Therefore, Hornby shows two different forms of isolation – one where the person is afraid to bond with others in case he gets hurt; the other where a person is desperate to form bonds with others in case he gets hurt.
In About a Boy, Nick Hornby explores isolation through:
At the start of the novel Marcus wonders why Fiona is sad.
As the weeks go on, Fiona does not seem to be getting any happier.
… he didn’t know. His mum was sad, he knew that – she cried a lot now, more than she did before they moved to London – but he had no idea whether that was anything to do with boyfriends.
What could be wrong with her that he wouldn’t know about? She was in work so they weren’t poor […] What else made you cry, apart from money? Death?
Marcus is too young to understand about his mother’s depression. He just knows that she is sad and that he cannot help her. He wonders whether the reason is the fact that Fiona’s relationships never seem to last very long. The reader can see that it is because of her depression that her relationships are short-lived, and not the other way round.
When Marcus is not in school, he spends most of his time worrying about his mother, and this cuts him off from other people as he does not know anybody in whom he can confide.
Marcus is bullied at school and on the way home.
“What you singing, Fuzzy?” He’d done it again. He’d been thinking of one of his mum’s songs, a Joni Mitchell one about a taxi, but it had obviously slipped out again. They all started humming tunelessly, throwing in nonsense words every now and again, prodding him to get him to turn around.
Marcus is an easy target for bullies as he looks different from other boys because of his old-fashioned clothes and haircut. He is also prone to start singing aloud at inappropriate times. Although nobody has physically hurt him, the constant low-level bullying is making Marcus feel very lonely.
Marcus plays truant for the first time in his life.
He just walked out the way he had come in, and kept on walking […] he felt different, better, as if he’d let go and he was now falling through space.
When Mrs Morrison, the head teacher, accuses him of not trying hard enough to avoid being bullied, Marcus cannot take it any more. He thinks that he must isolate himself from everyone else because he is the only person on whom he can depend. For the reader this is a sad realisation. There should be a network of people waiting to help Marcus.
Marcus realises that he needs more than just his mother in his life.
Two wasn’t enough, that was the trouble. He’d always thought that two was a good number, and that he’d hate to live in a family of three or four or five. But he could see the point of that now: if someone dropped off the edge, you weren’t left on your own.
Marcus decides to arrange matters so that his mother and Will get together. As he is only a child, he does not really understand that two adults who are introduced will not necessarily get on. In fact, Fiona and Will are not at all suited to one another romantically.
Marcus comes to hero-worship Ellie, thinking that she can protect him from all the bad things.
Once again, Marcus was left with the feeling that Ellie didn’t have to do what she had just done, and that she had brought the trouble she was in upon herself. He was tired of it. It wasn’t real, and there was enough real trouble in the world without having to invent things.
At first, when Ellie takes Marcus under her wing, Marcus feels protected and he thinks that she is amazing. As time passes, Marcus comes to see that it is not possible to depend wholly on just one person, because everybody has weaknesses and faults and might break down at any time. On the day of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Marcus finally understands that Ellie is no more in control of her life than Marcus is of his. This is when he realises that we all need a lot more than just one person to depend upon.