Pondering Philip Hensher

August 9, 2010

Sheffield by Lewis Skinner (detail), Wikimedia Commons

Been reading The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher, recommended a couple of years ago by a friend who follows the Man Booker nominees. Feeling so strangely about it that I checked Goodreads to see what others are saying online. Not only are opinions mixed. but a number of readers, like me, seem to be struggling with their own reactions.

The long saga of two very ordinary, and on the surface boring, English families, The Northern Clemency opens in the 1970s and advances with great ponderousness into later decades. The writing is vivid, though too decorative for my taste, and the characters turn out to be mildly interesting—at long last, after the reader has become even more fed up than they are with their tedious lives. Obviously, since I’ve kept reading for nearly 600 pages now (of more than 700), it’s not the tedium that makes me ambivalent. Nor is it that the characters are mostly unlikeable as human beings.

One of my problems, I think, is the sheer moment-to-moment unpleasantness of the daily life and the environment, as Hensher describes them and as the characters experience them. Here’s a passage from early in the book when the Sellers family, transplanted from London, first encounters Sheffield:

“‘This will have been cleared by bombs,’ Bernie [the father] said, ‘these gardens, in the war. See where the old buildings stop and the new ones start? They’ll have been bombed during the war because of the steel, see?’ Francis [the son] looked around and it was right: a ripped-out space had been created, a kind of shapeless acreage, and into it, dropped in as exactly as false teeth, were new and extravagant buildings, the egg-box, a building with brass globes protruding from its top floor, others whose smoked mirrors for windows made no allowances towards the church-like blackened solemnity of the old town hall, a figure poised heroically above the entrance like Eros.”

The false teeth and the egg-box, jumbled in with a strange allusion to Eros (as a hero? on a public building??), give the scene a faintly revolting tinge. Now, I’d be the last to defend postwar architecture wherever it happened to be plopped. Granted, too, these are Londoners who don’t yet (and may never) appreciate the North. Yet it feels like the author’s own disgust must be creeping in. The first several hundred pages of the novel have so many passages of this variety that the narrative seems to be overhung with a fetid gas.

Thankfully, in later chapters, as certain of the annoying, pedestrian characters fumble into an everyday brand of heroism (with little help from Eros), the author’s lip seems less firmly curled. Here he describes a hidden wooded area from the point of view of Daniel Glover, a young man who seemed irredeemable at the start of the novel:

“He loved the summer here; loved the hover of the dragonflies over the soupy surface of the river’s pools in summer; loved those clouds of gnats like a hot fog about your head, clustering under the stickiest trees; loved the underwater hover, like a mirroring of the dragonfly hover above, of the sticklebacks, and the occasional glimpse of a bigger fish, or the thought of a bigger fish as the surface of the water gulped like a hiccup, and it must have been a carp, perhaps, taking an insect.”

There’s little conventional beauty here, and still much to repel, but we understand why Daniel loves the area, and we see that it has attributes that might be loved. Much like the ungainly, sticky, soupy characters themselves, perhaps.

Did Hensher consciously manipulate his prose to lead us on a long journey from ickiness through resignation into appreciation? Or did his style simply mellow as his characters and their actions grew less loathsome?

Enough speculation; got to finish the book.

(Later update: Reached the end. Still ambivalent. A bit of sensationalism late in the book felt arbitrary, unnecessary to the plot, making me realize that after hundreds of pages I had little sense of what the characters would do next. This uncertainty is probably true to life, but annoying in a novel. Shouldn’t a literary work have more logic than the messy world out there?)

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