I know next to nothing about Philip Hensher, but after reading The Northern Clemency I think I can draw two conclusions. One, he has read The Corrections and The Line of Beauty. Two, he quite liked both of them and fancied trying something quite similar.
I’ve only just finished The Northern Clemency so I haven’t Googled any reviews, but I suspect they may bring up these two novels as well, because a) zany family antics with a tragic edge and b) Thatcher-era Northern England. It’s very busy trying to be both these novels, but in the mean time it forgets its own purpose.
Which isn’t to say it’s no good at all. It didn’t cost me a lot of effort getting through it, so it wasn’t tedious or long-winded. Thankfully, Hensher – who grew up in Sheffield, where the novel is set – avoids the Northern Cliché of starving miners (well, largely anyway) and overuse of words like ‘love’ and ‘bairn’. And, to be honest, the story is hardly predictable.
The novel wanders in and out of the lives of two families, who live on opposite sides of the road in a slightly upper-middle-class area in Sheffield. They are the Glovers – father Malcolm, mother Katherine, children Daniel, Jane and Tim – and, on the other side of the road, the Sellers family – Bernie, Alice and their children irritating children Sandra and Francis. The novel starts in the 1970s, as evidenced by discussions of geometric wallpaper, canapés and the occasional reference to the rise (and later fall) of Margaret Thatcher’s government. The Glovers are long-time Sheffield residents whereas the Sellerses have only just moved in from London; the Glovers are experiencing marital discord whereas the Sellers are mostly perfectly happy together (“after thirty years, they still went to bed together every night”). We read along with them as they pass from jobs into retirement or from school into jobs, stay in relationships or form new ones.
Perhaps I’m not smart enough for this book, but I couldn’t see what Hensher tried to say with it, what its central message was. The plot veers off in all sorts of directions, characters do all sorts of weird things (of course, one of them commits suicide). At the beginning of the book, as the Sellers clan makes the big move from London to Sheffield, daughter Sandra rides along with the movers. By the time she gets out of the moving van in Sheffield, the movers are furious at her, though exactly why remains unclear. When they move into their house, they discover all the lightbulbs have been taken. On the other side of the road, Katherine discovers her son has secretly been keeping a snake – a long-desired pet – in his bedroom and stamps it to death on the kerb because she’s frustrated her beloved boss, with whom she’s almost but not quite having an affair, didn’t come to the party she threw. This is how the new neighbours meet; the relationship stays predictably awkward for several years afterwards. There is a whole cast of side-characters, some more interesting than others.
The Northern Clemency isn’t a bad novel by any means, but I feel like I’ve read it all before. It lacks the streamlined zaniness of The Corrections or the emotional charge of Ian McEwan, to name but a few of writers to whom it is indebted. It has no great faults and no great virtues. I was really looking forward to reading it before I started it, but I highly doubt I’ll remember I’ve read it two years from now.