Friday, 20 March 2015

'The lifting of a burden'

Spoilers throughout this review.
Timothy Glover, with 'a head like a bowling ball sitting on his shoulders', whose T-shirts are made of 'home tie-dyed cotton from stalls at radical fairs', one 'grey as a prison flannel' is not an attractive or a pleasant character. We first meet Tim as a ten-year-old in Sheffield in 1974, but Philip Hensher is keen to assure us that he was never a nice boy. When his mother, Katherine, is looking through photograph albums when Tim is grown-up, she remembers that she had 'difficulty' with Tim even when he was only an ugly baby: 'difficulty telling Jane and Daniel that they had to love their new little brother. He hadn't slept, hadn't liked food, had pushed her away almost constantly. She'd wanted, sometimes, to push him away, to be honest.' Tim's lack of redeeming features is underlined throughout the twenty-year time span covered by The Northern Clemency, where, as a shiftless young man in 1984, he carefully dog-ears his copy of Capital before taking it out of the house so he'll never be suspected of not having read it, and hangs around at the fringes of the miners' strike spouting half-digested ideas about capitalism. By 1994, Tim is a lecturer in social sciences, but seems hardly more educated or less childish; indeed, he's presented as a caricature of the loony left. When his old neighbour, Bernie, a former employee of the electricity board, which Tim blames for breaking the miners' strike, politely invites Tim to his retirement party, Tim 'wrote a finely argued letter over five pages of the departmental writing paper explaining why... he couldn't in all conscience go to such a party.' It's not surprising, when Tim's body washes up near the end of the novel, that his brother Daniel perceives his death as 'the lifting of a burden.'

Tim Glover, however, is not just an oddity within the world that he inhabits; he's an oddity for the reader as well. In a novel otherwise so committed to nuance and, indeed, kindness, his vicious portrayal jars, over and over again. Not only does it seem unnecessary to seek out the most unsympathetic viewpoints possible for, not only the miners' strike, but for the entire left-wing critique of Thatcherism, it seems cruel to revel so thoroughly in Tim's personal failings. This huge novel is deliberately confined to a small subsection of the lower middle class in Sheffield, and perhaps the total lack of working-class viewpoints is deliberate; perhaps Tim's self-delusions are not intended to condemn all his comrades but to emphasise his failure to understand anybody different from himself. It's difficult to pretend The Northern Clemency is a novel about class, however. Despite Hensher's brilliant eye for social detail, it has more to say about individuals than groups. Some of these individuals work better than others, although none fail nearly as badly as Tim. (And yes, Tim is a failure as a character - as demonstrated by the need to fall back on the cliched idea that he was 'wrong from birth', rather than warped by the unfortunate events that happen to him later). Francis, close in age to Tim, has a small but significant arc that focuses on his loneliness as a child and asexuality as an adult - an arc that culminates in the first emotional connection he's ever made with everyone. Francis's sister, Sandra, is engagingly complex; striving to be a cool girl as a teenager, but never quite managing it, she later plays the role of a British expat in Australia without ever quite achieving the local insouciance she prides herself on (when asked where the best places to go in the country are, she falls back on "Ayers Rock. The Great Barrier Reef. The Blue Mountains.") Sandra can be thoughtless and cruel but, unlike Tim, is completely human. The other two children from 1974, Daniel and Jane, fare less well, as their narratives are inexplicably shortened to give more space to their brother.

Hensher's gifts as a novelist, however, are most on display in his depiction of the two sets of Sheffield parents - Bernie and Alice, and Katherine and Malcolm. Katherine's decision to get a job in 1974 sets her apart from her neighbour Alice, who remains a stay-at-home wife and mother. However, the thrill of working in a flower shop with the glamorous Nick turns Katherine's head, and she's soon guilty of egregious name-dropping among her family, which Hensher handles hilariously via disgusted teenage daughter Jane: 'At first Jane felt that she would never get on with her mother's conversation, the way you waited for Nick to enter it at any moment, but time wore down anything. Soon it was the same as Tim's dreaming evocation of snakes, his paragraphs of detail and longing, and they divided the long evenings between them like madmen supervising the silent sane.' When Nick is accused of money-laundering in 1984, Katherine's obsession takes a more dramatic turn - although Nick's story is one of the inexplicable loose ends in this novel. Hensher also writes Katherine and Malcolm's relationship with understated mastery. Alice and Bernie get less page-time, but Alice, in particular, is fully if quietly realised, and her ending is an understated tragedy; just as she is trying to come to terms with the fact that her husband's retirement has highlighted how little she has done with her life, she has a brain haemorrhage. As she lies in hospital, her son visits her: 'At first Francis's talk took the form of assurances of love, of telling Alice what sort of admirable person she was... It was all true, but he got to the end of it very quickly.' The reader is with Francis is both recognising Alice's goodness and realising how little there is to say.

The Northern Clemency is an oddly mixed bag; more than 700 pages long, I had the sense that it could easily have lasted another 700 without becoming any more conclusive. On one hand, its depiction of these two families (Tim aside) is endlessly fascinating, and we care no less about Francis playing games in the playground than Katherine on trial, which is a triumph in itself. On the other hand, it delivers far less than it ought to given its size, and I felt strongly that The Emperor Waltz, which is both tightly-written and lengthy, demonstrates how much Hensher has improved as a writer, especially through excising the unconvincing descriptive passages that weigh down a lot of The Northern Clemency. I enjoyed it, but I'm not sure I would read it again.

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