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Our House, in the Middle of the Street
Two families make their way through modern England's transformations.

Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, November 30, 2008

THE NORTHERN CLEMENCY

By Philip Hensher

Knopf. 597 pp. $26.95

Philip Hensher missed winning Britain's Booker Prize last month by a hair, but now comes a surprising consolation prize from the United States: Amazon has named The Northern Clemency the best book of 2008. I like this enormous novel very much, but I'm surprised that the savvy booksellers at Amazon would make such a daring choice in a recession-bound holiday season. After all, last year they picked Khaled Hosseini's bestselling A Thousand Splendid Suns. Given the army of book clubs already primed by The Kite Runner, that was about as risky as choosing Santa as favorite Christmas celebrity. Amazon may disappoint some customers with a novel as demanding as The Northern Clemency, but it's encouraging to see that the ascendancy of online booksellers needn't mean the end of high culture.

Though still relatively unknown in the United States, Hensher is a respected writer and critic in London. In 2002 he published The Mulberry Empire, an alarmingly relevant novel about England's efforts to overthrow the government of Afghanistan during the early 19th century. And in 2003, Granta magazine included him on their sometimes prescient list of "Best Young British Novelists" along with the now famous Monica Ali and Zadie Smith.

The Northern Clemency thoroughly justifies Hensher's place in that Olympian group. It presents a continuously evolving panorama of two middle-class families in Sheffield, where the author grew up, about 150 miles from London. In 1974, when the city "was entering on the last phase of its industrial greatness," this was, Hensher writes, a place that "made its money from steel; it was driven by its waters; it was built on coal." But those elemental foundations are about to shift dramatically, and over the next 20 years, the gossipy citizens who live on an ordinary Sheffield street will endure upheaval they could not have imagined.

The Glovers have three children and maintain a dull, passionless marriage that Hensher examines with comic but never demeaning concentration. Malcolm Glover works in property management and enjoys battle reenactments in his spare time. His frustrated wife, Katherine, has upset the family routine by taking a job at a florist's to give herself something to do besides the children's laundry. Their new neighbors, the Sellerses, have come from London so that Bernie Sellers can become deputy manager of the electric company. On the day they move in, they watch Katherine run out of her house with a snake and stomp on its head while little Tim Glover trails after her shrieking in horror. Thus begins a complicated friendship between these two families.

The story moves along from one engaging episode to another as the Glovers and the Sellerses grow older, drift apart and reconnect in surprising ways over the next two decades. A number of things happen in the five sections of this long novel, but it's impossible to speak of The Northern Clemency as having a plot in the conventional sense. In fact, it's easy to imagine some readers waiting impatiently -- and futilely -- for the story to begin. But Hensher's intricately crafted sentences flash with wit, his dexterity with telling detail is captivating, and his dialogue delivers the guilty pleasure of eavesdropping. If you give yourself over to this novel's organic movement, you'll fall in love with its startlingly perceptive depiction of these people. And eventually, you'll enjoy the satisfaction of seeing how these disparate scenes lock into each other in the most poignant ways.

The first two sections show the Glover and Sellers households when their children are still living at home. Suburban repression is the rule, "reserve and restraint, the usual conditions of an English life." Acts of rebellion and cruelty are politely ignored with "a party-like smile as if at a personal comment in bad taste from the friend of a guest, brought and welcomed under sufferance." Hensher writes that "no one seemed able to talk to each other. . . . They all had their reasons for concealing matters from or snubbing each other." Katherine's husband blurts out the whole culture's philosophy in a rare moment of agitated candor: "If you don't say anything it can't become important, but if you say it everyone's ever after got to walk round it like a pile of rocks in the living room." And so they walk around every disappointment and burden, even though Katherine's entire body is "written over with the fact of her obligations." Her husband notes the lack of intimacy between them but can't imagine living any other way. "For most of their lives together," Hensher writes, "it had seemed to him that he was admitted only to the public downstairs rooms of Katherine's mind. The more intimate spaces and speculations, the whole upstairs and attics of her thinking were kept from him."

There are spot-on scenes of the children at school, particularly Sandra and Francis Sellers, who never escape accusations of being London snobs; their cringe-inducing experiences in PE are classic. In later sections of the novel, we follow them and the Glover children, now adults, to London where they struggle to find jobs and affection in a country transformed by economic and social change. Loneliness haunts them all, especially poor Francis, who "was tall and drawn-out in shape as someone else's shadow." In one painfully naked confession, he cries: "I was wrong, deciding not to be shy. . . . Because if you're not shy you go out into the world, but if you are shy then you stay at home, and it's really better to stay at home. You're going to be happy if you stay at home." Sandra Glover, meanwhile, can't wait to get away and cut herself "off from the guilt and burden of family. . . . She could feel herself shedding her ties like a dog shaking itself after a bath."

The later sections grow more explicitly interested in class, sometimes in ways that emphasize differences between America and England. (Even the chapter titles -- "Mardy," "Nesh," "Gi'o'er" -- will send you scurrying to a dictionary of Briticisms.) We see the disastrous coal miners' strike of 1984 from several competing points of view. Tim Glover, whose sad plight dominates the end of the novel, becomes a comically self-righteous Marxist, but his radical cant hides a dangerous sexual fury. Meanwhile, his slick brother, Danny, responds to the fluctuating economy with just the sort of entrepreneurial spirit that Margaret Thatcher celebrated.

This absorbing portrait of a large group of people invites comparison to Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections or Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, but Hensher is a gentler satirist and treats his characters more tenderly. Indeed, he writes with such illuminating attention to the flutterings of everyday hope and despair that you come away from these pages feeling like a more insightful person. That's all we ask from the best books of the year. ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at charlesr@washpost.com.

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