"The Northern Clemency": An intimate epic
Philip Hensher's "The Northern Clemency," a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, is an epic tale of two late 20th-century English families whose ordinary lives take some extraordinary turns.
Seattle Times book critic
"The Northern Clemency"
by Philip Hensher
Knopf, 597 pp., $26.95
J.G. Ballard's "Empire of the Sun," Iris Murdoch's "The Black Prince," V.S. Naipaul's "A Bend in the River" — those are just a few Booker Prize finalists that failed to nab the prize.
Classics all, they're clearly not to be dismissed.
This year Philip Hensher's "The Northern Clemency" joins their company. His novel, a finalist for what is now the Man Booker Prize, lost to Aravind Adiga's incendiary "The White Tiger," a deserving winner. But Hensher's book — an epic-length study of ordinary lives that take some extraordinary turns — is also strong, ambitious work, impressive enough to be named "Best Book of the Year" by the editors of Amazon.com.
Set mostly in Sheffield, an industrial city in northern England, from the 1970s through the 1990s, it's a tale of two families who seem at first to provide a clean contrast between domestic contentment and household hostility. But as Hensher traces their parallel fates, odd permutations in character and precipitous choices in love, work and travel complicate the picture.
On one hand are the Glovers, native Sheffielders. Malcolm, the father, is in real estate but has some passionate extracurricular interests: gardening and, more eccentrically, historical re-creations (he likes to dress up and re-enact English Civil War battles). His wife, Katherine, is filled with "half-angry plans for social improvement," one of which she realizes when she goes to work for an upscale florist, a man with whom she soon becomes smitten. Teenage son Daniel is sex personified, going through one girlfriend after another. Daughter Jane, a sharp observer, dreams of being a novelist. Tim, the youngest, is snake-obsessed.
Across the street, newly arrived from London, are the Sellers. Bernie, who works for the Electricity Board, is "as open to view as an Ordnance Survey map." His wife, Alice, is serene and sympathetic. Daughter Sandra is venturesome and just beginning to feel her sexual allure. Tall, gangling Francis is riddled with baseless fears — "dangers involving crowds of strangers, unfamiliar islands of retail and cooking, the probability of being lost and abandoned" — but his mother keeps fond, protective watch over him.
The two families get off to an awkward start on the day the Sellers move into their house. When Alice introduces herself to Katherine, she finds the Glovers in full-scale meltdown on several fronts. The novel then unfolds in rich, leisurely detail, tracing how the families gradually connect and disconnect as children rebel and/or move away and parents deal with troubles of their own. Hensher's portraits of the imagined worlds that teenagers and small children inhabit are especially acute, and his empathy with the isolation of frustrated housewife Katherine is striking: He seems to know exactly what she's thinking and feeling from moment to moment, without dropping any hint as to what she's going to do about it. She herself doesn't know.
That same principle applies to the novel as a whole. The book's big shocks come out of the blue, as in life itself. Its quieter surprises — a dud husband who turns out not to be such a dud, an entirely platonic friendship between sexpot teenagers — have the rightness of the unexpected. Even Katherine's crush on her boss is revealed more through her unconscious vocal mimicry of him rather than any seductive move either makes.
Hensher is also alert to how the personal fates of his two families interlock with the fate of Sheffield itself, as its coal mines and steel plants shut down. (Thatcher-era union protest and violence are a key part of the book.) He fills his pages with pleasurable phrasing: a flower shop that's an "oasis of mutable beauty, bought wholesale," a husband who feels he's been admitted "only to the public downstairs rooms" of his spouse's mind. Occasionally he lapses into overwriting, but his physical descriptions of Sheffield — its industrial east side, its suburban west side abutting onto Peak District moors — are unfailingly fine.
If "The Northern Clemency" has a central theme, it may be announced with one character's glimpse into "how unmotivated ordinary life seemed; ... actions deriving from nothing very concrete, and certainly not from the decision and the rational assessment of advantage [some people] seemed to believe must be there."
While the book, on its surface, appears to be an old-fashioned novel — symphonic in scale, almost Victorian in its dense detail — it also recalls the experiments of Virginia Woolf (especially "The Years") with its multiple leaps in time and shifts in point of view.
"Clemency" may move slowly for some readers' taste. But that's how it creates, with sumptuous thoroughness, a whole world.Michael Upchurch:
firstname.lastname@example.org. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has published four novels.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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