Stiff upper lip

Philip Hensher’s lengthy novel, The Northern Clemency, which was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, concerns the lives of two families of neighbors in Sheffield, England, spanning a 20-year period beginning in the late ’70s. The novel’s characters are so vividly real and so sharply drawn that, much like with one’s own family, it can sometimes be painful to spend time with these people.

Both families, the Glovers and the Sellerses, are conventional, buttoned-up, English bourgeoisie. The book is devoted as much to the Glovers’ three and Sellerses’ two children as to the parents. The Sellerses have a warm marriage (one of the only uncomplicated relationships in the book), while the Glovers have a dreadful one.

Hensher is as able to fully inhabit the mind of a teenaged girl who experiments with the power that adolescence has conferred on her as he does that of a middle-aged man who is humiliated by his wife’s affair. Each page is studded with poignant details, as when the cuckolded husband muses on his wife’s lack of interest in his hobby, re-enacting famous battles. Other writers would urge us to laugh at the small scale of this man’s life, but Hensher instead makes us feel the pain of someone to whom such a basic pleasure as sharing an interest with a spouse is out of reach.

This is a quintessentially English novel, and most of the pain remains unexpressed except in cathartic bursts.

A discussion of the promiscuity of the Glovers’ handsome eldest boy, Daniel, begins the narrative and establishes a primary theme: the intersection between sex, love and loneliness. Another of the children, Sandra, so desires to be free of all ties, including family, that she emigrates to Australia. There is a startling passage where Hensher describes Sandra’s ecstatic embrace of the brightness and freedom that she finds upon arrival in Sydney: “She could feel herself shedding her ties like a dog shaking itself after a bathe.” This shedding of ties becomes numbingly cruel when she refuses to return to England even in the case of dire family illness.

The rest of the children also grapple with loneliness and isolation. The most sympathetic was Francis, the gentle and fearful Sellers boy. He is first characterized through an episode that tracks the evolution of a chaotic playground game which captures all that is exhilarating and dark about childhood. In adulthood, Francis realizes that he is asexual. This is an interesting twist as well as a rare fictional characterization of a very real, though also rare, sexual orientation (or lack thereof).

Tim Glover, the least “true” character in the book, is an irritating little boy with Asperger-like symptoms who becomes a nasty and brutish adult with militant leftist views. His portions of the story delve into the Thatcher administration and her triumph during the miner’s strike that gripped the United Kingdom from 1984-1985, which may fail to resonate with the non-British reader. Due to Tim’s obsessive nature, a perverse childhood incident between Sandra and Tim imprints on him strongly and twists his sexuality. This leads to the book’s climax, which is, unfortunately, weak and unrealistic.

There is so much more to the plot of this sprawling and compulsively readable novel than is described here, and almost all of it has the feel of watching real lives unfold with all that is touching, frustrating, depressing and uplifting about that. The denouement of the book comes with the bang of a deus ex machina being creakily lowered, which is an unworthy conclusion for this fine work.