‘The Northern Clemency’ by Philip Hensher

An epic tale of northern England in the last quarter of the twentieth century, Philip Hensher’s 700+ pages is a state-of-the-nation narrative with very little input by the very events determining that state of the nation. 

Opening in 1974 in a white-collar street in a white-collar suburb in the industrial city of Sheffield, The Northern Clemency primarily looks to the Glover family to drive its narrative, assisted by the newly arrived Sellers family, who have upped sticks from London and taken the unusual step of heading north. We follow these two families over the next 20 years.

It’s the time of massive social upheaval in Britain, the years of Thatcherism, privatisation, the yearlong miner’s strike. Yet, so little makes it to the pages of Hensher’s novel: and there’s even less analysis. Admittedly, Daniel (the eldest Glover child) eventually partners Helen, daughter of a miner: Tim (youngest Glover) is a Trotskyite activist who baits management-level Mr Glover (building society) and Mr Sellers (electricity board). But it’s all so extraordinarily superficial – even Helen’s father is a non-supporter of the strike, a very small minority of the National Union of Miners. What makes the lack of any commentary even more puzzling is the fact that the novel is set in Sheffield, one of the most politically militant anti-Thatcher cities at the time.

The result is that the disappointing The Northern Clemency reads like a script for a television soap opera made in the 1970s. There’s the occasional melodrama (Mrs Glover working part-time at a new, fancy florist that turns out to be laundering drug money and the subsequent court appearance years after she quit work: the stroke that poleaxes Mrs Sellers only a few months after her husband takes early retirement) and lots of minor, neighbourly events – births, deaths (but surprisingly no marriages) alongside friendships developed. And, as the northern industrial cities decline, so the kids mostly move out – London calls, as does Sydney for Sandra Glover. 

Adroit it may be (to keep the attention for 700+ pages, it must have something going for it) but it left me yearning for more and less at the same time. Less about fish pies, coronation chicken and mushroom vol au vents, more about the city of Sheffield, the people who lived there and the political machinations that led to the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of South Yorkshire. 

Like all good soap operas, The Northern Clemencygrabs superficial interest. But the reality is that, like soap operas, it ultimately has little value. Hensher has chosen to tell it as it is (or at least how he remembers it – he was bought up in Sheffield from the age of nine having moved there from London) but with no depth of analysis. Everything just is. The Glovers and the Sellers simply move through their lives, whether it’s the 1970s, the 80s or the 90s (Hensher chooses to place his narrative in the 70s and the 90s, with the back story of the 80s told retrospectively).

The Northern Clemencywas shortlisted for the 2008 Booker Prize but lost out to Aravind Adiga and The White Tiger.


Advertisements

Booker Prize Shortlist: 2017

2017 represents only the third occasion whereby I have read all shortlisted novels for the Booker Prize. And, as with 2016 and 1996, the question remains – from my perspective, did the judges get it right with George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo?

Controversy had (as usual) reigned supreme when the longlist of 13 was whittled down to six. Where was Sebastian Barry and Days Without End? What – no Jon McGregor and Reservoir 13? What happened to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railway and Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones? Instead, according to many critics, what was a powerful long list became something of a diluted shortlist.

The books that did make the cut were
Paul Auster 4, 3, 2 1
Emily Fridlund History of Wolves
Mohsin Hamid Exit West
Fiona Mosley Elmet
George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo
Ali Smith Autumn

Sadly, to my mind, there were only two novels that stood out on the list, both extremely powerful and both deserved winners of the prize in this year – and in many other years. But the other four were generally forgettable.

Her fourth appearance on the Booker shortlist, Ali Smith and her Autumn is, to my mind, the least enjoyable of the six. Expansive and inventive it may be, capturing the zeitgeist of current British world of uncertainty and inwardness, this short novel is beautifully written and deeply profound, yet, too often, deliberately obscure and pretentious. (50%)

Emily Fridlund’s debut novel History of Wolves is also beautifully written with haunting prose and a vivid sense of place, but its meandering narrative failed to ultimately engage. (50%)

I loved his The Reluctant Fundamentalist – but Mohsin Hamid’s ruminations on refugees and Exit West, whilst salient, engrossing, at times quite magical, is also somewhat odd – a flight-of-fancy that actually needed a little more grounding. The teasingly well written first third sadly becomes a pedestrian, off-kilter place (as opposed to time) travel narrative. (58%)

Elmet is a powerful debut novel set in Yorkshire – a dark tale sublimely wrought, a British gothic simultaneously pastoral and fraught with a sense of foreboding. But it trails off into the land of melodrama in its narrative as Fiona Mosley tries a little too hard to tie up all loose ends. (64%)

The final two on the list are streets ahead of the other on the shortlist – and are neck and neck in the running. Paul Auster’s sprawling 4,3,2,1 is a magnificent thousand plus pages of four versions of the early life/lives of Archie Ferguson. It’s an engrossing celebration of liberal ideology and a reflection on a generation that sexually, politically and culturally defined the end of the twentieth century. (80%)

But it’s pipped to the post by George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo , an ethereal symphony in its intimacy of grief and familial love. Structurally experimental, Saunders’ novel is a polyphonic narrative interspersed with short quotes from newspaper articles and biographies of the day as President Abraham Lincoln is struck politically inert on the death of his 12 year-old son. (81%)

A very hard call – but to my mind, the judges of the 2017 Booker Prize got it right as far as the winning novel was concerned. Not convinced about the shortlist itself, though.

‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders

A brilliant, emotionally exhausting journey of a tale, Lincoln in the Bardo is an ethereal symphony in its intimacy of grief and familial love.

The death of 12 year-old Willie Lincoln from typhoid in the middle of the Civil War sends his father, Abraham Lincoln, into a tailspin. Grief-stricken, it is reported that the president returns to the crypt several times over the ensuing days as the ravages of the war are ignored.

From this kernel of historical truth, Saunders has woven an extraordinary tapestry as the boy finds himself in ‘the bardo’, the Buddhist intermediate state between death and reincarnation, an afterlife populated by ‘spirits’ or ‘ghosts’ who are unaware they have died: but it is also an amalgam of the catholic purgatory, where souls await their judgement and subsequent fate.

Children usually pass through the bardo quickly. But with the frequent visits by Lincoln, Willie becomes the centre of hope, such is the power of the bond between father and son as the inhabitants become convinced the boy will return to the land of the living and help them do the same. His guides are Hans Vollman, a 46 year-old printer killed in a workplace accident, the Reverend Early and young Roger Bevins III, a suicide.

The novel’s synopsis does the final work little credit as we slip between consciousness and dreamlike states, spirits flitting between the tombstones and marble crypts, souls revealing their sad stories that have led them to the bardo. These polyphonic narratives are interspersed with short quotes from newspaper articles and biographies of the day referring to the mental state of the president at the time. Some are sympathetic/supportive, others critical. It’s a cacophony of opinion and gossip as Lincoln comes to terms with his loss and Willie recognises, with the help of his three guides, that he will not be returning with his father to the home on the hill.

With humour and pathos, Saunders, in his first full-length novel, deploys a panoply of historical and fictional voices in a theatrical tour de force, an enthralling invention. It was understandably awarded the 2017 Booker Prize.

‘Washington Black’ by Esi Edugyan

Esi Edugyan’s latest novel is a thought provoking and intriguing narrative, but not one that I found particularly engaging. The Canadian author’s distant, almost objective matter-of-fact approach created a distance, a cold veneer to the story that left this particular reader strangely unmoved by much of what unfolded over its 400 plus pages.

Barbados, 1830 – and Washington Black is a 10, or possibly 11, year-old slave boy, working the fields of the Faith Plantation. Eighteen weeks after the death of his first master, the cruel Erasmus Wilde, a man ‘…[who] owned me, as he owned all those I lived among, not only our lives but also our deaths, and that pleased him too much’ arrives from England. What follows is a period of terrible cruelty, chilling and unsparing in its randomness and seen from a child’s-eye view. But Washington Black does not dwell on the horrors of colonial slavery: its scope is broader, its ambition wider.

Instead, Erasmus Wilde’s brother, the eccentric Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde, chooses the young Black to be his personal assistant. Naturalist, scientist, inventor, explorer and abolitionist, Titch wants the boy to help him perfect the perfect aerial machine. But a terrible accident leaves Wash permanently scarred – and as witness to another event, he and Titch flee the island. The two are plunged into adventures on the high seas, the southern American states and the icy wastes of the Arctic and which take in London, Amsterdam and Morocco along the way. And it is Washington Black who rises to the challenge with his imagination and intelligence, even when he is at his lowest ebb. His talent with paper and pencil and the 19thcentury demand for science, illustration and drawn studies attract others to him.

Scientific discoveries, engineering feats, bounty hunters, freezing temperatures, love, destitution, joy, disappointment all follow – elements of a 19thcentury swashbuckling adventure story. But Black is also invested in knowledge, thoughts and interests beyond his background and education – a precociousness that jars but allows the narrative to develop, stylistically enabling Edugyan to increase that searched-for scope of the novel. But it is also this mechanical approach that, for me, placed Washington Black as interesting rather than engaging. It jarred a little too much, putting it beyond the believable and more into a fervid ‘message’. Storyline after storyline is introduced. And whilst Wash is a unique character, restless, bought alive by his connections to people – from Big Kit, his powerful protector at the plantation, Titch himself and, later, Tanna – and the opportunities they provide, there’s something that does not quite gel. And that, sadly, undermined Edugyan’s third novel for me.

Washington Black was shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize but lost out to Anna Burns and Milkman.


‘The Secret River’ by Kate Grenville

Loosely based on her own family heritage, Kate Grenville’s powerful novel of Australia’s past is at once vivid, imaginative and illuminating. It’s 1806: William Thornhill is deported for life to the penal colony of New South Wales. There he earns his freedom and settles with his family on a piece of land on the banks of what is now the Hawkesbury River. It’s an isolated piece of land, surrounded by only a few Europeans. But the land is not as empty as is assumed. 


Grenville is vivid in her description – whether it is the poverty, depredation and struggles of life in London for Will and Sal both as children and later as man and wife or the terrible inhumane scenes of carnage towards the end of the novel in the fight for dominance and ownership of the land. 


The first third of The Secret Riveris set in London and the first years of the Thornhills life in the penal colony. As a hardworking and trusted lighterman on the Thames, Will eked out a  life just above the poverty line for his family until a run of financial bad luck forced him to look for money illegally to support his wife and child. Theft from his employer saw him sentenced to death but this was commuted to life and transportation.


A savvy intelligence in both Will and Sal saw them prosper within the confines of the penal settlement and a hard-earned ticket of leave gave the family the opportunity to take on a lease on 200 acres of Hawkesbury River land, ‘the blank page on which a man might write a new life.’It’s this period that is the main focus of Grenville’s narrative.


The concept of ownership is assumed by Europeans to be determined by fences, buildings and obvious signs of crops or farming. Nomadic by nature, the indigenous people of the area (Dharug) come and go according to the seasons, living off the land. Clearing vegetation destroyed sources of food: fences denied access to ancient sites and freedom of movement. The Europeans failed to understand this ‘savage’ way of life – made worse by the fact the Dharug did not understand English no matter how loudly you shouted.


More experienced settlers and their propensity for violence make a more reasonable Will and Sal uneasy – but even they know that they need to make a success of their chosen lives. They cannot go backwards and decisions have to be made.  


It’s an intriguing if brutal telling of a fictional truth. Solomon Wiseman, Grenville’s great, great, great grandfather, is the inspiration for her research, a man who settled on land on the Hawkesbury (what is now Wiseman’s Ferry) having been transported for life for theft. In it’s telling, Grenville presents a more personalised European perspective than most, avoiding (controversially but, to my mind, appropriately) giving a voice to the indigenous people in her story – ‘Their inside story – their responses, their thoughts, their feelings – all that was for someone else to tell, someone who had the right to enter that world and the knowledge to do it properly.’

A seminal novel on the history of Australia since European settlement, The Secret Riverwas shortlisted for both the 2006 Booker Prize and Miles Franklin Award and collected the 2006 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.  


‘Restoration’ by Rose Tremain

‘Erratic, immoderate, greedy, boastful and sad’ – so is the self-description at the beginning of Restoration by our seventeenth century hero, Robert Merivel. But Tremain herself admits that Merivel is as much a product of the 1980s (when the novel was written) as it is of the 1660s (when the novel is set).

Tremain talks of the climate of selfishness and material greed that began to prevail in the UK in the Thatcher years (and which has such contemporary currency with the ongoing Brexit saga). Restoration was her fictional response – set in the time of King Charles II and the frippery of the court, where personal gain and excess was positively encouraged (and generally rewarded) whilst the vast majority of the population continued their lives in penury and drudgery.

Robert Merivel is a dissolute medical student when an accident of fate leads him to the court. His sense of fun and humour wins favour with the king – to the point Charles bestows upon him a title (Sir Robert) and a house (Bidnold) in the county of Norfolk. But there’s a catch. Robert must not only marry Celia, the king’s favourite (and youngest) mistress, but he must never touch her. With the luxuries of a generous stipend, Bidnold itself and a preference for experienced, Rubenesque women (and the fact Celia will continue to live closer to London than Norfolk), Merivel readily accepts the conditional gift – and so begins a year of pure, unadulterated, indulgent luxury, ‘to hang the walls [of Bichnold] with ruched vermilion taffeta and Peking scrolls, to upholster my chairs in scarlet and carmine and gold’ and dress in the excess style of court – colour, flounces, wigs, facepowder. 

But reliant on favours and whims, it cannot last and Merivel finds himself cast out, without income, without home: and, as his marriage arrangements are public knowledge, something of a fool. But he is determined to win back the King’s favour.

To do so requires Merivel to dig deep, to attach himself to the dour Quaker livelihood of Pearce, his friend from Cambridge days, and the mental hospital deep in the windswept Fens. Pearce has undertaken his commitment to the patients in ‘despair at the greed and selfishness of our age which he believed was like a disease or plague, to which hardly any were immune.’

Sounds familiar. 

Considering Rose Tremain is regarded as one of the UK’s most significant authors, Restoration is, surprisingly, her only book to make a Booker Prize shortlist (in 1989). She lost out to Kazuo Ishiguro and The Remains of the Day


‘The Bone People’ by Keri Hulme

A novel of extraordinary vitality, of beauty and cruelty, of passion and provocation, Keri Hulme’s debut is set in the harsh, isolated landscape of New Zealand’s South Island. Combining Maori myth and contemporary social attitudes, The Bone Peopleis a soaring yet relentless narrative of three unique characters and their relationship with each other.

A fiercely independent Kerewin, reclusive and virtually self-sufficient in her isolated tower, is an artist running away from her past. Joe is isolated in his recent grief with the sudden death of his wife and young son. And then there is Simon, an autistic child locked into his mute world, unofficially adopted by Joe, having been washed ashore during a terrible storm. Intelligent to the point of precociousness, Simon is a child who tries the patience of a saint: a petty thief with a fierce and almost uncontrollable anger that has landed him in trouble throughout his young life.

A reluctant bond forms between the tough-talking Kerewin and a feral Simon, leading to a gradual breakdown of the barriers she has erected to protect herself from her memories. A reliance evolves, a reliance that eventually encompasses Joe. But there are secrets of violence so shocking and distressing that a wedge pushes this alternative family unit apart.

Complex in its simplicity, The Bone People is, on the one hand, a sincere narrative of a country, a landscape, a culture, of love, death, friendship, abuse, relationships within its everyday. But it’s also a story of myth and fable, a metaphor of change as a European Simon clashes with the traditions of Maori Joe. Part Maori, part ‘Pakeha’ (a white New Zealander), it is Kerewin who represents the future, a hybrid unity of the two cultures.

For all its ambition, heightened sense of grandeur, poetic beauty and visceral, unrelenting violence, The Bone People sadly unravels towards the end as Hulme is seemingly driven by the sense of a utopian ending, a catharsis for all that has come before it and all that will follow. It all becomes a little too laboured and absurd. Which is a pity, as the first two thirds, whilst at times difficult to read, is a haunting narrative with its evocative language and deft storytelling.

Having been rejected by virtually every New Zealand publishing house, Keri Hulme was finally accepted by Spiral, the small feminist publishing house. The Bone People quickly sold its initial 2,000 print run, a pattern that continued and which led to exposure to the UK publishing world and, eventually, the Booker Prize panel. The Bone People was awarded the 1985 Booker Prize, beating such as luminaries as Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch and Peter Carey.

‘Time’s Arrow’ by Martin Amis

What is the sequence of the journey I am on? What are its rules? Just a couple of questions asked early in Amis’ narrative by narrator Tod Friendly. The answer soon becomes apparent for the comfortable medical retiree living in the north-east of the US. 

That sequence is a life heading backwards. The narrative opens with Friendly surrounded by doctors at the moment of his death. This is the beginning of Time’s Arrowand the relatively short novel takes its reader through a disorienting reverse chronology. It’s Friendly’s consciousness or hindsight that tells the tale – unable to change the past but simply observe or occasionally comment.

That reversed version of reality sees people become younger (to the point where they return to the womb and cease to exist); relationships start with huge arguments, end with passion and are followed by a period of nothingness or cool distance; meals at restaurants begin with a payment; doctors create harm; taxi drivers are paid at the outset and provide such a service that time is spent at the end of the journey waving farewell. 

The telling of the story of Tod Friendly in such a manner is disconcerting – particularly as it soon becomes apparent that this is not his name and there’s a secret to his past to be kept just that – secret. But with its reverse chronology, Time’s Arrowsoon reveals Dr Odilo Unverdorben and his odious past in the Nazi death camps of the Third Reich.

The main problem with Time’s Arrowis that as a conceit, it simply becomes repetitive. A good-looking German doctor, having fled the concentration camps to escape to the US via Lisbon where he becomes a relatively successful medic but something of a failure in any long-term relationships with women. That’s the essential storyline. It’s surprisingly slight. But, told in reverse chronology, the cleverness, well told, the knowledge that street cleaners drop rubbish before good citizens collect it, becomes a gimmick and a clever writing exercise. And then there’s the experiments on Jews in the concentration camps that result in improvement in health prior to being sent home. Uncomfortable reading…

Time’s Arrowis Martin Amis’ only Booker Prize shortlisted novel and lost out to the 1991 winner, Ben Okri, and The Famished Road.

‘To Rise Again at a Decent Hour’ by Joshua Ferris

23278040Fierce, pithy, unforgiving, very funny. Ferris’s voice is unique. So stated the Mail on Sunday writ large on the cover. A whole host of other short, sharp accolades are dotted around. The problem is I somewhat struggled to agree.

Paul C O’Rourke is a successful New York dentist, avid fan of baseball and in particular the Boston Red Sox, fiercely private – and a reluctant non-believer. When he is the victim of online identity theft and jettisoned into social media limelight with comments that put him at odds with what he believes in, Paul becomes anxious to discover just who is responsible.

The phantom Paul preaches an obscure, ancient religion, a man [who] broke with reality. He took an old legend from the Bible and made a myth from it, and now he tells the myth like it’s the truth. And the phantom certainly knows a few too many personal details for the real Paul to feel comfortable. What evolves is an occasionally witty narrative that explores crackpot theology, obsession, the Internet and subsequent loneliness of contemporary life.

But the Mail on Sunday claimed a unique voice for the author. Yet To Rise Again at a Decent Hour smacked of Howard Jacobson’s Booker Prize winning The Finkler Question (but without the laugh-out-loud humour) and in particular the character of Julian Tresslove. Like O’Rourke, Tresslove has a chequered and unsuccessful record with women. Like O’Rourke, Tresslove is an obsessive with Judaism and all things Jewish (but O’Rourke is simply an obsessive – Catholicism was an earlier fixation). And middle-class state-of-the-world mournful angst is so much better when written by Philip Roth!

It’s all a little disappointing with its philosophical and religious existential complexities alongside O’Rourke’s deep-rooted loneliness and social dysfunctionality. The result is a well-written but deeply unsatisfyingly dull narrative.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour was shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize but lost out to Richard Flanagan and The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

‘Possession: A Romance’ by AS Byatt

possessionMassive and complex AS Byatt’s multi-awarding novel may be, but this overwrought piece of pretentiousness left me perfervid and polysyllabically frustrated (I can do it too!).

The writing was on the wall almost 30 years ago when I first purchased the book – it has stayed on the bookshelf since then. Now a yellowed, vintage copy (appropriate – a large part of Possession: Romance is entrenched in 19thcentury poetry and letters), pages and pages of varied fonts, indented prose, academic musings incorporating footnotes into the main body of the novel alongside stereotypical characterisation and humour that falls flat results in a fetid indulgence of epic proportions.

I long gave up on the exploits of the nerdy, academic researcher, Roland Michell, wanting to make a name for himself in the world of 19thcentury English literature and the poetry of Randolph Henry Ash. Naturally his boss, James Blackadder at Prince Albert College in London, is mean spirited and threatened by all and sundry – but in particular the wealthy American, Mortimer Cropper, patron of the Newsome Foundation in Arizona. That upstart is also interested in Ash – and is purchasing all paraphernalia even vaguely related to the poet, including all research papers, original writings and letters.

So right from the off we have academic confrontation and competition – made even more profane when Roland keeps quiet about his discovery of a potential connection between Ash and Christabel LaMotte, a scorned lesbian poet long forgotten until recently championed by feminist academics. Cue more stereotypes of lesbians and feminists that can be added to brash Americans and batty, socially awkward academics as Roland heads of to the Women Studies Centre in the north of England where he meets LaMotte expert, Maud Bailey.

Professional rivalry ensues in the tedious literary detective story that unfolds from their research at the final home of Christabel LaMotte.

Possession: Romance is a series of writings and genres from different periods: epic poems, diaries, letters, lists, academic papers, contemporary prose. But it’s simply too self-consciously clever and sits alongside stereotyped characters and clichéd events and plot development. Byatt herself takes an academic approach to biography whether in fiction or semi-fiction. You may not be able to fault the research and command of language but, as a novel, this is an impenetrable, self-promoting, self-indulgent entrapment. Literary with a capital ‘L’.

Possession: Romance was awarded the 1990 Booker Prize.