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The Northern Clemency

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Philip Hensher

Amazon Best of the Month, November 2008:The Northern Clemencybegins at the perimeter of a late-summer party, amidst a din of neighbors gossiping one moment and navigating awkward silences the next. But once you encounter the Glover family--in particular, … see full wiki

Tags: Book
Author: Philip Hensher
Publisher: Knopf
1 review about The Northern Clemency

Even ordinary lives can be fascinating

  • Jan 9, 2009
Rating:
+3
Despite some fairly obvious flaws, I enjoyed this book a lot. In particular, I read all 600 pages in under two days, which should give an idea of its appeal.

For me, its strengths were:

* It's a sprawling portrait of two (upper)middle-class English families, spanning a 20-year period, beginning in 1974, locating it firmly within Britain's Thatcher years. (I have a certain fondness for well-constructed family stories).
* Hensher is really terrific at capturing the dynamics of relationships within a family, as well as exploring his characters' inner lives.
* He can be very funny for long stretches; he can also write very movingly about intra-family tensions and loyalties.
* With one glaring exception, the characters are believable, and he keeps us interested, even though the events of their lives, objectively viewed, are pretty mundane.
* The various story arcs are well-constructed, believable, with satisfying resolutions (with one exception).

So if you like a nice, generation-spanning family drama that's a 'good read', "The Northern Clemency" definitely has something to offer.

But I'd be doing you a disservice if I didn't warn you that:

* The book could have been quite a bit shorter. At 600 pages, it cries out for editing. For instance, Hensley appears incapable of having one of his characters order a drink without telling us the height, weight, hair color and demeanor of the bartender, as well as what he's wearing. (There's a particularly egregious 4-page section later on in the book where an office cleaning lady, Rosalie, is introduced. We learn about her relationships with her heroin-addicted son, with the different security guards in the building where she cleans offices at night, with the late-shift supervisor, Brendan, her nosy neighbors etc. We learn that Rosalie has grit and is a survivor. But her only function in the story is to allow the reader a glimpse of something one of the main characters has thrown in her office wastebasket. And it's not even anything particularly revealing.)
* Then there's what appears to be a mild food obsession on Hensher's part. Description of a fish pie can run to two pages. Canapes and appetizers receive similar attention, bordering on the fetishistic.
* As a reviewer, Hensher has expressed his disdain for other authors' use of easy cultural references, such as pop songs, to evoke a particular point in time. He correctly identifies it as lazy writing. Apparently it doesn't bother him, in his own writing, to use vol-au-vents, shag carpeting, and the mention of very specific TV programs to do the exact same thing.
* Although the book is set in Sheffield, against the backdrop of the miners' strike and Thatcher's response, there is no political commentary of any real depth. To be fair, Hensher may wish to make the (valid) point that even during periods of (relative) political turmoil, the interest and engagement of the upper middle class was virtually nil. But his development of Tim, the troubled youngest kid in one of the families as a caricature Trotskyite who is laden with every tired cliche in the book is lazy and ultimately boring.
* Occasionally, the plot just meanders into a completely implausible digression - there are parts when the novel reflects the often undirected, aimless character of everyday life a little too faithfully. I must confess that this didn't bother me all that much, as Hensher generally manages to keep things entertaining, and often very funny, throughout.

I enjoyed "The Northern Clemency" a lot, warts and all, and found it compulsively readable. Readers who liked Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" should enjoy it; if you hated "The Corrections", give it a miss.

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