Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Big Baggy Monster of an England

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Big Baggy Monster of an England

Article excerpt


The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher ( Fourth Estate, [pounds sterling]17.99 )

THE TITLE of this novel stands, threatening us, like a dragon at the gate. Whaton earth does "northern clemency" mean? Even after 730 pages, the reader maystill be wondering. And all those pages! That soft moan you hear is from theMan Booker panel: eight times as long as On Chesil Beach. Come back, Ian, allis forgiven.

Hensher is after very big game. He claims, in an article in the currentProspect magazine, that The Northern Clemency is a "Condition of Englandnovel", in the tradition of Trollope's panoramic The Way We Live Now.

Novels, that is, in which the hero is nothing less than "England".

Hensher pivots his narrative on three of England's recent social crises: thelong "winter of discontent" of the early 1970s, the miners' strike era of theearly 1980s, and the soulless ("there is no such thing as society") Thatcheriteaftermath when everyone found themselves richer materially and poorerspiritually. How, the novel asks, did the climate in England become so bloodyinclement? Hensher does not believe that the novel can do history historically.It must be personal (there's an epigraph from EM Forster, stressing the point).

Fiction's province is people. And there are, it must be said, an awful lot ofpeople in The Northern Clemency: a dozen life stories spin out and intertwineunpredictably over a quarter of a century of profound social change. Theambitious scale and sweep makes for reader frustration.

Just when you get interested in Sandra, or Katherine, your attention is jerkedacross to Tim and Francis, or whoever.

The narrative opens with a party, thrown by the Glover family for householdersin the same street, in a middle-class area of Sheffield. It's an uneasy event. …

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