The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher

Connecting the dots….George Eliot, Philip Hensher and the multiplot novel.

I don’t know what it is about 2010 and 700 page novels, but so far this year, I’ve managed to read two: Evening’s Empire by Bill Flanagan–a fictional 40 year view of the music biz from the manager of a rock band, and now The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher. Both are reviewed over at MostlyFiction but I commented on Evening’s Empire here, so I decided to blog a bit about The Northern Clemency while I am at it.

I noted The Northern Clemency from Philip Hensher was shortlisted for the Booker prize–after all that was blazoned across the cover, but since I am generally oblivious to these things, I thought the book was up for this year–2010.

I started the book and thought to myself that if I liked it, I would probably be placing a curse on the chances of it winning as I typically seem to have better luck with the books that don’t win. It’s not that I read all the nominees and then am upset when my pony doesn’t win. Instead it’s a case of me looking at old lists and realising that I preferred the losers over the winners–hence my blog category: Booker Prize Losers.

I was only a few pages into the book when I realised that I was really enjoying it. This was, I thought, a nail in the coffin as far as the prize went for the author, Philip Hensher, so it was with a sense of relief that I discovered (after looking at the Booker prize archive) that the book already lost a few years back–2008, in fact. 

This just goes to show–again, as if I needed the reinforcement–that the books I like lose.

I liked it so much, I tracked down the author and asked for an interview. The Northern Clemency really was a terrific read–the closest thing I’ve read to a modern version of theVictorian multiplot novel in a while.  So what’s it about? In a nutshell, it’s the story of two families in Sheffield from the years 1974-1994.

I’m not going to re-review the book, but I do want to address some of the criticisms I came across. Some people thought it was rather like a soap opera, and (horror of horrors) Coronation Street was even mentioned at one point. I didn’t think the book was like a soap opera at all. If I went back over the last twenty years of my life, well, I’ve lost count of the deaths, the diseases, divorces, scandals and suicides that have taken their toll. But enough of the hankies and the sympathy cards. Bottom line, I don’t think that The Northern Clemency is over-the-top when it came to the scenarios it presented. 

Another criticism of the book is that it largely ignores the political events taking place in the country. I saw the politics in the book as background noise, and whether we like it or not, that’s how it is for most people. Take the current debacle in Iraq for example. It’s been going on now for 7 years, and yet most Americans are largely untouched by what has become a sideshow–a war that doesn’t even make the headlines. Rubbishy stories detailing the latest salacious sex scandal of sports celebs and hollywood stars take a front seat to ho-hum stuff like wars.

Makes me think of one of my favourite Auden poems: Musee des Beaux Arts…but I digress.

Back to The Northern Clemency and why I think it is a throwback to the Victorian multiplot novel. 

George Eliot, by gum,  knew how to write a Victorian multiplot that showed the fabric of British society through the interconnected lives of her characters, and we see this sort of thing in The Northern Clemency, a novel in which lives and lifestyles intersect.  Here are two quotes from one of my TOP TEN novels of all time,  Middlemarch, and both of these quotes get at the interconnectedness of roles in society.

“But anyone watching keenly the stealthy convergence of human lots, sees a slow preparation of effects from one life on another, which tells like a calculated irony on the indifference or the frozen state with which we look at our unintroduced neighbour.” 

And then:

“I at least have so much to do in unraveling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.”

While Hensher’s characters  remain firmly products of their class, nonetheless, the plot shows this interconnectedness in the social fabric Thatcher’s Britain. For example, Malcolm Glover works for a building society which later sells council houses, and this fuels Malcolm’s repetitive arguments with his emotionally stunted Marxist son.  Bernie Sellers works for the power company that helps break the Miners’ Strike. Years later, the power company is privatized and Bernie is forced to retire and handed a “gold plated vent, or valve, or tap, or something” for his trouble. Also we see middle class housewife Katherine Glover venturing out to seek employment. She happens to find herself unexpectedly wound up in the fate of a large-scale drug dealer, and while she is too naive to understand that there is something fundamentally wrong with the finances of the business she works for, nonetheless, the reader sees the connection between middle-class suburbia and the excesses of a drug dealer who cannot spend his money fast enough. Another example can be found almost at the end of the novel. One of my favourite scenes involves those roused from a coma or a suffering from a brain problem who are given a  key question: “who is the Prime Minister of Britain?”  The answer should be John Major: but if patients reply ‘Margaret Thatcher’ this is not seen as incorrect:

“We found that however badly damaged a patient’s mind was –even patients with advanced Alzheimer’s–they always seemed to know it was Mrs. Thatcher. And until quite recently you couldn’t base much on them not remembering immediately that it was John Major. People with nothing wrong with them went on saying Mrs. Thatcher before remembering and correcting themselves, for a year, eighteen months.”

 And we readers can take that any way we want, I suppose. For me, the passage lends itself to the idea that Thatcher’s rule PM years are more than just a memory that remains behind–these years left permanent changes or damage depending on how you look at it–a bit like a stain. Or one of those ring-around-the-bath thingies.

The Northern Clemency may not be overtly political but some of the most poignant parts of the novel describe the desperation and pride of the Miners’ wives,and at the same time the author makes it perfectly clear that British society remains divided along class lines. People move, accents shift and alter, but unfortunately we remain divided and separate from those whose lots in life we cannot understand. One of the main characters, Daniel, although a native of Sheffield remains a ‘foreigner’ to the miners’ section of town, and when he visits the mining town of Tinstone, it’s as if he’s stepped onto another planet. Hensher makes the point, and I think he makes the point well, that we may not think our lives are connected but they are. Connect the dots and what do you see….Miners…British Rail…and a few dots later…?

If anyone out there is interested in the events that took place at Orgreave (there’s a section of The Northern Clemency that takes place at Orgreave), I reviewed Dave Douglass’s Come Wet This Truncheon elsewhere on this blog.


Filed under Hensher Philip

6 responses to “The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher

  1. I confess to starting this book, then giving up – probably because of its length, which seemed excessive at the time. I’m just about to start a 500 pager but tend to save the lengthy novels for when I’m on holiday and well away from the computer

  2. It is a very meaty novel, but after Evening’s Empire, I’ve been on a roll. I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself going back to the Victorians.

    I think it took me about 2 weeks to read it, but it was not a chore. I found myself turning to it every chance I could.

  3. Interesting, I’d read some much more negative reviews of it, and not having enjoyed Kitchen Venom that much I’d pretty much written it off.

    I think John Self over at The Asylum covered this, less positively as I recall. Still, clearly I’ll need to give it fresh consideration.

    Right, off to read the interview.

  4. I wouldn’t hazard a guess either way on this one Max for you. I really enjoy Victorian multiplots and for me this is what this book read like. I really felt quite involved with the characters.

    I haven’t read Kitchen Venom so I can’t comment either way on that one either. But I did go and buy a copy of Pleasured after finishing The Northern Clemency as it sounded like the sort of book I’d be interested in.

  5. Hi there, led here by your comment on my blog, and I like the way you’ve addressed the criticisms. I’m off now to link this to my review!

  6. Pingback: The Northern Clemency, by Phillip Hensher, narrated by Carole Boyd « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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