Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Northern Clemency – Philip Hensher

Is this just a superior soap opera? Malcolm and Katherine Glover live in a middle class suburb of Sheffield (it’s 1974) with their teenage children Daniel and Jane, and 10 year old Tim. The story opens as a new family moves in opposite: the Sellers from London. Bernie Sellers has taken a job as manager of the local CEGB power plant. He’s accompanied by his wife Alice, his bright but manipulative 14 year old daughter Sandra and his alexithymic son Francis, a little younger than Tim.

We follow the relationships within and between these couples and their children, augmented by a large supporting cast. The children grow up, the 1984/5 miners’ strike is smashed, and we transition to the post-Thatcher services economy of the early 90s.

A novel which repays the time devoted to both writing and reading it has to illuminate, not just entertain. Hensher has beautiful insights into the complexities of relationships. The author has god-like powers to throw events and betrayals of trust at his characters, and Hensher is unflinching. There will be few readers of this novel who will not recognise aspects of themselves in his characters, and in their ways of managing and just coping.

I particularly liked the way the author used Australian culture (somewhat romanticised I fear) as a vantage point to illuminate English awkwardness and inhibition. I was less impressed with the way he treated the revolutionary left in the early 80s (The Spartacists). His ‘comrades’ are uniformly unpleasant – spoiled brats with no basis in any kind of authentic idealism. His wonderfully nuanced character studies everywhere else in this novel might also have been extended to them. In particular, I don’t think the character development and eventual fate of Tim fully carries conviction.

But these are small points. In summary, the novel’s 738 pages effortlessly summon the reader to turn them, and it’s easy to feel a part of the communities Hensher has made so real, and a privilege to briefly share their lives. I found myself thinking that Bernie Sellers would be about 70 now!

In the spirit of Ian McEwan-style metafiction, on the penultimate page, an older and wiser Daniel buys a copy of “The Northern Clemency” and soon becomes engrossed. He tells his wife “it’s sort of about people like us.” It surely is.

This is an Amazon Vine Review here.