Saturday, January 03, 2009

A family drama that's ultimately empty

The Northern Clemency was shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, but lost out to Aravind Adiga's White Tiger. Author Philip Hensher has been a judge in the past, so the defeat must have been especially disheartening, and Hensher has made no secret of this fact. But on strict merit, his defeat was well-deserved.

The Northern Clemency is the story of two families, the Glovers and the Sellerses. It is 1974, and the Sellers family has moved into the house opposite the Glovers' in Sheffield, England. The novel will track the families' relationships with one another, and those between their individual members. With the '70s as backdrop in the beginning, Hensher has space to gradually chart the rise of Margaret Thatcher.

But really, it's about the families. Katherine Glover has decided to start work at a florist's, and her husband, Malcolm, suspects she is having an affair with the shop's proprietor. On the day the Sellerses are moving in, Malcolm has left the family briefly, so there is considerable tension in the Glover household.

Tim, the youngest Glover kid, keeps a pet snake, unknown to his family. Alice Sellers spots the boy in the opposite window while she is shifting furniture. She informs Katherine, naturally, when the latter comes to visit, resulting in a dramatic scene in which the poor snake is killed by Tim's mother.

This act of cruelty is one of many set pieces Hensher builds that will resonate later. Tim is of considerable importance to this novel. He will become a radical who hankers after writing furious letters to the Guardian. In many ways, he is the protagonist, which is a pity, since the other kids, Glover and Sellers, are no less interesting.

And that is the problem with The Northern Clemency. Striving to locate the tiny joys and cruelties of family life, Hensher seems unable to see the wood for the trees. There are well-written scenes in a novel that fails to convey anything substantial.


This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.

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