The Northern Clemency
A novel paints a detailed portrait of England, from Thatcher to Blair.
On a hot night in August in Sheffield, England, the Glovers give a dinner party with none of the guests of honor in attendance. The Sellers, their new neighbors and the ostensible reason for the party, arenâ€™t moving in until tomorrow.
Katherine Gloverâ€™s boss, Nick â€“ the real reason she put on a long blue dress and cooked such tempting delights as Coronation chicken and potatoes pin-cushioned with toothpicks of cheese, pineapples, and cold sausage â€“ cancels at the last minute.
The following day, the Sellers move in and Katherineâ€™s husband walks out, setting in motion the next two decades of the familiesâ€™ lives. Philip Hensherâ€™s The Northern Clemency, which was a finalist for the Booker Prize and chosen as Amazonâ€™s Best Book of the Year, is so precisely rendered, one can easily imagine it becoming required reading for set designers everywhere.
Sheffield is best known to Americans from â€śBilly Elliotâ€ť and â€śThe Full Monty,â€ť and the 1984 minersâ€™ strike that plays pivotal roles in both of those movies is observed in the close detail that Hensher brings to everything from 1970s dinner party nibbles to womenâ€™s suits circa early 1980s. (Oh, the bows!)
However, fair warning: Almost no one on Rayfield Ave. dances (one character does take tango lessons, but heâ€™s not very good) and very little wackiness ensues. In fact, the action that does occur over the course of 600 or so pages tends to be of the awful variety.
The day after her husband, Malcolm, doesnâ€™t come home, Katherine Glover violates the central tenet of British stiff-upper-lipness (not to mention every rule of good parenting) by not only telling a complete stranger, Alice Sellers, what has happened, but by stomping to death her youngest sonâ€™s pet python, Geoffrey.
Tim, who was troubled even before his mother murdered Geoffrey, later becomes the target of unthinking sexual abuse by 15-year-old Sandra Sellers, who canâ€™t get Timâ€™s older brother Daniel interested in her.
Those two actions lie dormant for several hundred pages, only to have the consequences finally erupt 20 years later on the other side of the world.
If you found Dickens or Tolstoy hard going in high school, youâ€™re unlikely to enjoy the rhythms of â€śThe Northern Clemency.â€ť (There are no wars here to liven things up â€“ unless you count a brief mention of the Falklands.)
Unless the prospect of a well-written paragraph or three on the making of a fish pie sounds pleasant, youâ€™re likely to be, frankly, bored. Those giant 19th-century novels are some of my favorite comfort reading, and yet there were a few times during the reading of â€śNorthern Clemencyâ€ť when my mind wandered.
However, Hensherâ€™s skill as a writer is just about immense enough to encompass the broad moral and sociological scope of his novel.
â€śThe Northern Clemencyâ€ť changes viewpoints frequently, checking in with various Sellers and sundry Glovers (as well as their neighbors and co-workers) over the course of 20 years.
Hensher occasionally drops a character for years â€“ sensitive Francis Sellers, for example, was AWOL too long for me, although I sure didnâ€™t mind taking a break from self-absorbed Sandra.
But Hensher is less interested in the individual fates of these characters than in what their collective lives represent.
As Hensher details marriages, affairs, births, retirement, and illness, he is methodically painting a portrait of the changing face of northern England
from the Thatcher era to the early days of Tony Blair.
Tim becomes a teenage Marxist. His brother Daniel ends up owning a restaurant in a converted steel mill that offers retro-chic variations on the 1970s appetizers his mother once served.
â€śThe Northern Clemencyâ€ť is big and detailed enough to call Dickensian â€“ except that Dickens tried everything except charades and semaphore to make certain the audience got his message loud and clear.
Hensher is much quieter. Heâ€™s like a tour guide on a nature hike, pointing out a bird here, a leaf there â€“ suggesting that perhaps one take a closer look at tree bark.
Ten miles later, youâ€™re catching your breath at a summit you never knew you were approaching, realizing that this view was the point all along.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.