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King of the Badgers

The inhabitants of a small English town respond to a shocking crime.

September 16, 2011

King of the Badgers By Philip Hensher Faber and Faber 448 pp.

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By Katherine A. Powers for The Barnes & Noble Review

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Though well-known in Britain as a novelist, a columnist, an outspoken advocate of gay rights, one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists, and an all-around man of letters, Philip Hensher has made a mark in this country – to the extent that he has – as the author of "The Northern Clemency." The novel was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and published here last year.

Set in Yorkshire from the mid-70s to the mid-90s, it was a chronicle of England's transformation – or deterioration, as it may be – as it played out in the lives of the members of two families. That novel was to an extent an obituary tribute to an English past, and, in fact, to any sense of connection with it., But it was also a celebration of human idiosyncrasy, a festival of caustic wit and comic brio, and a humane, thoroughly absorbing network of stories that left me, for one, wishing it were twice as long as its 700-plus pages.

Now here is King of the Badgers, another novel preoccupied with change, this time all-encompassing, intrusive, and ugly. Set in 2008 in Hammouth, a fictional town on an estuary not far from Barnstaple in Devon, it begins with what has become a form of mass entertainment in Britain, a full-bore media carnival of fear, grief, and voyeurism mounted over the disappearance of a child.

In this instance, the victim is 9-year-old China O'Connor, one of her hairdresser mother Heidi's four children by three fathers. The family, which also includes Heidi's dimwitted, sexual miscreant boyfriend, live in one of the housing estates that have been thrown up around Hammouth, That these excrescences are designated Hammouth too, is exceedingly painful to the residents of the town proper, itself a charming place whose property values have soared so obligingly in recent years.

The town, whose economy was once connected to the sea, has gone the way of many ports and become a bustling venue for arts and crafts. It is full of "lady merchants undertaking miniature shopkeeping endeavours.... Lacemakers, batik-printers, humble potters who referred to themselves as ceramicists, the perpetrators of macramé, paper makers, conceptual artists, jewelers and sellers of jewelry, watercolourists, bookbinders, handprinters." Still, it is not a frivolous place; it has a green grocer and even a butcher, the latter being, in the narrator's view, "a means to register the life and independence of any English town."

Both the preciousness and the small-scale habitability of Hammouth stand in contrast with the unmoored Britain of child abductions, random shootings, and anonymous, exhibitionist sex (including something pretty foul called "dogging") – all of which figure in these pages. But the mentality of that world of fear and intrusion is moving into Hammouth, its vector being (the perhaps too-aptly named) John Calvin.

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