The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher

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The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A gigantic book offers great depths to the details and interactions of some neighbouring families, in 1970s and 1980s Sheffield. A pain to hold but never to read, it might still be an acquired taste, and therefore is not recommended to all.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 736 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Harper Perennial
ISBN: 978-0007174805

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Sheffield, 1974. On one side of the street a house lies vacant, waiting for a family of four to move from London and settle in. They're just too late to catch a party that might have broken the ice with the family across the road – Katherine, and her husband, and her three kids, and Katherine's crush on her boss that she remains in constant denial of.

In fact, why not get the fact that all the characters have their gentle flaws or quirks to be considered over and done with? Katherine's daughter Jane wants to believe she's writing a Victorian novel. Older son Daniel is visibly priapic at the party; younger son Tim smuggles a pet snake into the house without anyone else knowing. As for the husband, well, where to begin?

And with the Sellers' arrival, we get a teen girl burgeoning on sexuality and bad acne, and a very skittish son, although what at first appear to be a more reasonable, rounded couple of parents – a housewife, and a man working for the electricity board. Elsewhere something rum is behind the florist's that Katherine works for, and further in the background are the hyper-critical and hypocritical curtain-twitchers of the estate.

With all these personal details come also a lot of detail about their lives, interactions, and problems. Something has to pad the book out to its substantial length, after all, but don't worry – this did not feel padded out to me. Some may certainly not appreciate the level of detail inherent in the style, however, and I can well imagine some people deeming the scene where a child's bad joke is stretched over several pages of interfering dialogue as dangerous self-parody.

However it remains a task and a half to have the patience to stick with the book long enough to work out what all the details are designed to add up to. Chunk one, the first 160pp, ends with a nicely bizarre set piece, but the sense that the proceedings preceding have been a little soapy – the crush Katherine has on Nick, for one; someone departing and returning, with any reason left disguised; the conclusion of events in the removals van just unwritten. The 1974 setting is done reasonably well – I love the phrase I read elsewhere recently about nostalgic fiction (something along the lines of get the biscuits right and the rest falls into place) but this does not apply here. All the same, you might wonder why the story has to begin at such a stage, and kick into gear (or stay in the same one, would be nearer the truth) to get closer to the modern days.

Again, regarding what the fiction is all about, Mrs Thatcher makes a veiled appearance on page 190, but I feel a little awkward revealing plot points when the page numbers are 200 and over. Part two might just be too much of a continuation for some of the first 'book', before the 1980s miners' strikes are reached. What becomes most noticeable is the depth we read, and enjoyment we find, in the internal goings on of Katherine's mind regarding her crush on her boss, and how that is countered with everyone else's view of it, the two sides both causing subtle shifts in the balance with the other.

Appreciation of the book will come down to several things – the style and its depths, for one, also the erratic time jumps that are unsignalled and yet weave us to and fro through all the many narratives. It could be said that all the dialogue being introduced so blankly as 'he said', 'she said' is a bit on the cheap side.

I don't know how much personal memory came into the fiction from Philip Hensher, but there is a lot of detail that he could have slipped up on – from the appreciation the housewives have for the imminent Sainsbury's store, to the detail of which side of Sheffield was thought to have better schools, to every season's weather. In the end the absorbing way the reader is gently thrust into the evocation of the 1970s is the appeal of the first few hundred pages, beyond of course the story and the mystery of what it is all leading up to.

For me, I felt not at all unhappy about having to read the book, but that it was a little shy in coming forward with a whole raison d'etre. There was certainly nothing as awkward about spending so long in the worlds within as holding the actual thing in your hand – at a walloping 730 pages plus it is the proverbial house brick. Also I was rather disturbed to find that, from shared memory and experience, I was closest to part one's Francis. I'll leave you to find out what that entails.

It is a hard book to ultimately recommend, as much as any recommendation is a generalisation. The book does take a long time to read, and while appearing to be one of those awful state of the nation books (you know the ones, they have to be so long they deserve my private nickname for them of country pile) it wears this lightly – possibly too lightly, given the dearth of obvious thrust to the story. On the other hand, there is a lot here for the more literary reader to get their teeth into – the refined, psychological details and mannerisms of the style. I really did enjoy several of the more focussed sections of the story – Katherine's particularly, and the end of Tim's – and the light humour (the lifeguard and his reading was my favourite), so there is a scope for much appreciation, as well as many copies being put down in exasperation.

We would like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag to review.

If this type of book appeals to you then we think that you might enoy Crusaders by Richard T Kelly.

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