Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency is the longest and, for me, the last of the Man Booker Prize 2008 wronglist longlist. Reading eleven novels in a row which I wouldn’t otherwise have chosen to read has taught me that, whatever I think of the judges’ choices, I don’t envy them their task, which involved reading over one hundred such books. Hensher himself was a judge in 2001, and found the task no struggle at all, pointing out that he always reads five books a week: “It was just my six months’ normal reading.” The linked article is worth a look for a wider insight into the Booker judging process. Who can doubt the sincerity of Adam Mars-Jones, a judge in 1995, when he acknowledges that “It was great to find a book so inept you could chuck it aside and get on to the next one.” And so – changing the subject completely – back to The Northern Clemency.
Looking at the Also By page, I see that I have read all but one of Hensher’s previous five novels, without ever really feeling myself to be a strong admirer of his fiction. What I remember best of them is the wonderful opening scene in Pleasured (1998), with two people dancing in the snow of no-man’s-land in divided Berlin. Otherwise Hensher is better known as a columnist and critic, and for me the author of the most brilliantly insulting pay-off in book reviewing history, in his piece on James Thackara’s 2000 novel The Book of Kings. He warms up with some mild words: “a book of gigantic, hopeless awfulness. You read it to a constant, internal muttering of ‘Oh – God – Thackara – please, don’t – no – oh, God, just listen to this rubbish’. It’s so awful, it’s not even funny.” And he concludes:
The awful thing is that Thackara … is utterly sincere and will probably be admired by people who believe that sincerity, rather than art, is the basis of a great novel. He is probably a nice man. He obviously cares deeply about these great historical movements and has done a great deal of research – my God, he has researched and researched and researched. But on the evidence of The Book of Kings, he could not write ‘Bum’ on a wall.
I wonder if any cunning literary editor has despatched a copy of The Northern Clemency to James Thackara to review? If they did, I hope they put enough postage on it, because this is one mammoth volume. A view of it in three-dimensional glory is really required to see what a doorstep of a book this is.
The Northern Clemency is set mostly in northern England, and it begins in the 1970s. Here I am reminded of another pointed piece by Hensher. Earlier this year – coinciding with publication of his novel – he wrote an article in Prospect magazine highlighting the weaknesses of many period-set ‘state of the nation’ novels, such as Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club. For example, “Large public events enter into the action awkwardly and obtrusively.” Such as this, perhaps, on page 69 of The Northern Clemency?
At eleven, Malcolm got up, switched the television off, unplugged it, remarking that it was a relief all those power-cuts had stopped at last.
He is also critical (and rightly so) of the use of easy cultural references to pin a story in time, particularly pop music: “a lazy, easily-researched way to evoke a particular moment”. How true, and so unlike other cultural “hey, it’s the 70s!” touchstones like Coronation Chicken, green bamboo-pattern wallpaper, car-key parties (very Ice Storm) and TV shows such as Why Don’t You? , all of which feature in the first 50 pages of The Northern Clemency. Hensher refrains from using pop music as his reference points: “I was a teenager when the Clash are reported by Coe as playing in Fulham. I wouldn’t have cared. At the time, my records were mostly of Mahler, Schoenberg and Boulez.”
The Northern Clemency, briefly put, is a story of two families in Sheffield. The Glovers are long-time residents of Rayfield Avenue, and the Sellerses have just moved up from London. Over the next twenty years they will experience a few dramatic life events and an awful lot of extremely humdrum ones, all narrated with extraordinary attention to detail. Hensher has the ability to turn a fine phrase (“he ate with his elbows out, as if always demolishing a pie in a crowded pub”, or describing a washing machine, whose “cycle went into passages of immense fury”) but they aren’t half few and far between.
There is every reason to praise many of the characters and events in The Northern Clemency for their realism. But it is this very act of recognition in the unexceptional nature of their concerns which damages the book in parts: our own lives, most of the time, would not past muster as the subject of a 740-page novel. It has a connection with Adam Mars-Jones’s Pilcrow, if not quite as heroic in its carefully intricate analysis of quotidian concerns, and in fact is a weaker book as a result. Where Mars-Jones had the guts to make his novel, as it were, beautifully boring, Hensher gives us a middle-class Coronation Street.
Even in this meticulous recreation of life, plausibility does sometimes fail. Hensher offers no acknowledgements at the end of the book: a refreshing change, in fact, to the habit now for authors to give three pages of thanks. He wrote it all by himself – hallelujah! Perhaps he was keen to avoid the trap of James Thackara, as Hensher does not seem to have “researched and researched and researched” – but then you don’t need to be a lawyer to know that in a criminal trial, the defendant isn’t cross-examined by the prosecution before he gives evidence to his own barrister.
There are strong set pieces, such as (implausibility notwithstanding) the criminal trial which takes place two-thirds of the way through, some affecting scenes in a hospital, and some decent tension near the very end as a past collides with a present. Hensher is also very good on family conflict, particularly between socialist-anarchist Tim and his father Malcolm (recalling the long bitter exchanges in Roth’s American Pastoral), and on the lurch of change for children trying to make new friends when they move schools. There is a scene which could have been hackneyed but which becomes very moving, where Malcolm and Katherine Glover view their lives reduced to a series of fading snapshots. Nonetheless there is an awful lot of trough between these peaks, and even when Hensher is pinpointing the thoughts of teenagers or housewives with considerable confidence and honesty, there never seems to be much that is surprising or novel in what he has to say. Some characters, such as Katherine Glover, are well drawn, while others, like her son Tim, seem half-hearted (bit weird, Marxist, obsessive … er, that’s it).
The inside flap of The Northern Clemency claims that it was inspired by “the great nineteenth-century Russian novels,” but the debt seemed to me to be less to Dostoevsky than to Desperate Housewives. It is immensely long and hysterically dull. What it does prove is that no one will ever reasonably subject Hensher to the sort of pasting which he gave James Thackara. The Northern Clemency, weighty in all the wrong ways, proves not that Hensher could not write ‘Bum’ on a wall, but that he can write soap on a brick.