THE NORTHERN CLEMENCY by Philip Hensher

Book Quote:

“At this point, Alice realized that that was how it was always going to be from now on. The moment of frank openness—a short moment, no more in their lives—like an eye opening and shutting again in sleep, had gone away. Because the news had come when there was an audience, in front of whom pretence had to be kept up: from now on it had never been the case that Katherine had done anything wrong, that she had ever been in danger of being prosecuted and taken to court. Alice could feel the buttress-like projections of the last few weeks dissolving like pissed-on bubble bath. That was how it was to be.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage (APR 10, 2010)

Special –> interview with Philip Hensher!

The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher is a sprawling novel that explores the lives of two middle class families against the backdrop of the Thatcher era. The novel, which begins and ends in Sheffield, spans the years 1974-1994, and as the history of the Glover and the Sellers families unfolds, replete with adultery, deceit, and scandal, significant social shifts in the country take place. Author Philip Hensher explores two decades in the lives of these people–relationships sour and fail, and new, unexpected relationships are formed. By 1994, the characters have all endured a range of experiences including forced early retirement, illness, and alienation. On a national level, the changes are also dramatic: The Miners’ Strike, the Right-to-Buy Scheme (the sale of council homes) and the privatization of the UK electric industry have all taken place, and the characters have had some role to play in the changes.

The novel begins with the Glovers throwing a party for neighbours of a middle-class housing estate. The guests admire the furniture and speculate about a handful of trivial things, including whether or not a new Sainsburys will be built and what the family about to move into “number eighty-four” are like. Katherine Glover’s party has two purposes. The acknowledged purpose is to bring everyone together to meet the new neighbours. This plan fails as the neighbours haven’t yet made an appearance. But there’s another design to the party; Katherine, bored with her marriage, is infatuated with her boss, Nick, and the party really is thrown for his benefit–although he doesn’t bother to show up.

The very beginning of the book belongs to the Glovers. Quiet Malcolm Glover works at a building society and buries his unhappiness in the dual distractions of his immaculate garden and the excitement of a civil war battle recreation society. Katherine and Malcolm have three children: 16-year-old Daniel, confident and successful with girls, 14-year-old Jane, who’s not particularly attractive but is intelligent and observant, and 9-year-old Tim. After years of staying at home, Katherine Glover’s new job at a tiny corner florist is the most exciting aspect of her life. Katherine transparently gushes with nauseating anecdotes about her boss, Nick, while her husband and children, although quite thoroughly sick of the subject, are unwilling to tackle her about her fixation. The Glovers’ party leads to domestic disaster and the beginnings of a relationship with the Sellers, who’ve moved from London just in time to witness some embarrassing events at the Glover home.

It’s perhaps inevitable to compare the dynamics of these two families–very similar in age and material circumstances, and the vivid attention to detail brings these characters and their relationships to life. After almost two decades of marriage, Katherine Glover, for example, struggles to remember her husband’s favourite dinner. Their marriage eroded by years of boredom is on the verge of collapse:

“She couldn’t remember having sex after 1962—but she couldn’t remember buying Malcolm socks either, although she must have done. Maybe it had been a part of her unremarkable domestic routine that had gone on automatically.”

Bernie and Alice Sellers enjoy a lighter-hearted relationship and seem like newlyweds in comparison. Unfortunately while they are closer as a couple, they remain distant from their children. 14-year-old Francis experiences horrible difficulties in his new school, and then there’s Sandra, a precocious girl who is very predictably going to be a handful.

Hensher is spot on when it comes to the domestic details of these families, and not just the seemingly simple stuff such as the food and the furniture. He also captures the petty bickering between siblings, the political disputes between generations that devolve to repetitive, scripted shouting matches, the well-worn ability to ignore the real issues within the family structure in favour of the more tangible and less-dangerous topics, and the slow building of fictions which conveniently gloss over the past.

The Northern Clemency is not an overtly political novel. The characters struggle with day-to-day problems and the vast political changes taking place in the country are seen largely as background noise. Bernie for example, doesn’t seem to connect the Miners’ Strike and the stockpiling of coal with forced early retirement and the privatization of the electric industry. The bigger picture exists for the reader. The book’s most political character is Tim, a difficult boy whose childhood alienation leads him to Marxism. In adulthood, Tim is extremely well versed in Marxist theory including, presumably, social relations and commodity fetishism, but he is incapable of internalizing his belief system. Emotionally damaged, he’s comfortable lecturing in a classroom and viewing his fellows beings from a position of isolation and hostility while he arrogantly and ironically commodifies his personal relationships.

The novel isn’t strictly linear and neither is it divided up into chapters. Instead, this huge novel (700 plus pages) is divided into “books” which cover specific episodes or chunks of time. Naturally given the sheer breadth of this novel, the tale includes quite a cast of characters. Nick, a shallow cipher, appears at salient moments, and other minor characters drift in and out of these pages, and it’s these sorts of moments that emphasize the intricate fabric of British society–from the preposterous consumerism of the drug dealers, and the Sheffield-uprooted, aging stripper, to the desperation of the miners who are engaged in the fight for survival. If, like me, you are a fan of Victorian multiplot novels, then The Northern Clemency is a feast, and it’s going to be one of my Mostly Fiction reads of 2010.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-0from 41 readers
PUBLISHER: Anchor (February 9, 2010)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: British Council bio on Philip Hensher
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and ExcerptGuy Savage’s interview with Philip Hensher
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More favorite British authors:

Bibliography:


April 10, 2010 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags:  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Facing History, Family Matters, Man Booker Nominee, Reading Guide, United Kingdom, World Lit

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