The Northern Clemency

A novel paints a detailed portrait of England, from Thatcher to Blair.

The Northern Clemency By Philip Hensher Knopf 608 pp., $26.95

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, aren’t moving in until tomorrow.

Katherine Glover’s boss, Nick – 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 – cancels at the last minute.

The following day, the Sellers move in and Katherine’s husband walks out, setting in motion the next two decades of the families’ lives. Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency, which was a finalist for the Booker Prize and chosen as Amazon’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 “Billy Elliot” and “The Full Monty,” and the 1984 miners’ 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 women’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 he’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, doesn’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 son’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 can’t get Tim’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, you’re unlikely to enjoy the rhythms of “The Northern Clemency.” (There are no wars here to liven things up – 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, you’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 “Northern Clemency” when my mind wandered.

However, Hensher’s skill as a writer is just about immense enough to encompass the broad moral and sociological scope of his novel.

“The Northern Clemency” 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 – sensitive Francis Sellers, for example, was AWOL too long for me, although I sure didn’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.

“The Northern Clemency” is big and detailed enough to call Dickensian – except that Dickens tried everything except charades and semaphore to make certain the audience got his message loud and clear.

Hensher is much quieter. He’s like a tour guide on a nature hike, pointing out a bird here, a leaf there – suggesting that perhaps one take a closer look at tree bark.

Ten miles later, you’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.

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