The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher, with an accompanying query as to whether the ranks of the great writers are being replenished

February 1, 2009 at 6:20 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

This is the book selected by Amazon’s editors as their favorite for 2008clemency

Upon seeing this news, Your Faithful Blogger could only respond, The Northern What? Despite making the Man Booker short list, this novel flew in completely under my radar. Well, thought I, here’s a situation that needs to be remedied!

So: I finished The Northern Clemency two days ago, and for just that long I’ve been sitting here wondering exactly what to say about this old fashioned, sporadically tedious but mostly terrific novel. Then, shortly after I posted my thoughts on the passing of John Updike, a reader left this comment:

“The loss of John Updike makes me wonder if the literary world is being replenished at the same rate that it’s losing such great writers.”

It’s a good question, and I’m not sure what the answer is. But I can say, judging by this, the only novel I have read by Philip Hensher:  please be aware of the work of this immensely gifted writer.

The novel  opens in the year 1974. The Sellers family is moving from London to Sheffield, in the north of England, so that  Bernie, the paterfamilias, can take a new job with “the Electric.”  With him are his wife Alice and their two children, Sandra and Francis. The Sellerses move into a house directly across the street from the Glovers: parents Katherine and Malcolm and their three  children Daniel, Jane, and Tim. It is a fateful move, though none know that at the time. The Northern Clemency is the story of  what happens to these nine people over the course of the next two decades.

Hensher writes terrific dialog; it’s the key to making his characters come so vividly alive. Whether they’re discussing everyday matters or something deeper, you want to overhear these conversations. And you develop a compulsive need to know what will happen next. Faults and failings are on display, yet in several situations, virtuous behavior leaps to the forefront, displayed by characters you thought scarcely capable of it. This happenstance is as thrilling in literature as it is in real life. In fact, the line between these two realities almost disappears in this novel. It’s one of the qualities that makes it such a great read.

During the period Hensher is writing about, Sheffield was primarily an industrial city. Judging  by his descriptions of it, is a far cry from the beautiful, mystical Yorkshire that I have recently experienced on my travels and am forever extolling in this space. Nevertheless, Sheffield is somehow the perfect crucible for the playing out of the destiny of these characters.

Hensher’s writing is wonderful. Toward this novel’s conclusion, as two excruciating scenarios unfold one after the other, the descriptions are pitiless in their exactitude. I had to stop reading several times and practice deep breathing exercises. Hensher can also delineate entirely mundane situations in a totally engaging way, with flashes of wit that greatly enliven the proceedings.

(It should also be noted that this is a quintessentially English novel; certain allusions may baffle American readers. The 1984 miners’ strike plays an essential part in the narrative; Wikipedia has a helpful entry on the subject.)

In this scene, Jane Glover, having reached adulthood, has come to London to live and work:

“She walked over Waterloo Bridge, her soft slim brown leather briefcase, much like a music-case, by her side, and she felt she looked somehow different from everyone else hurrying over the bridge at this time. It was a beautiful view, the grand buildings lined up along the green flood as if they were holding back something torrential.  As if on planned response, a boat hooted, somewhere down towards the City, its blast echoing between the sides of the canyon, and Big Ben replied with its half-hour chime. She was  starting to love this city.

And here, in the midst of a dire and totally unanticipated medical crisis,  a character  receives consolation, hope, and even enlightenment while reading aloud from, of all things, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes:

“As he read on, he grew absorbed in the story, and had to resist the temptation to fall silent, and read on rapidly in his own enchantment, his eye flying more swiftly over the page than his tongue could. Some [stories] were better than others, but he loved the rhythm of it; he loved the way the world, so baffling and meaningless at the beginning of each story, fell into place before Sherlock Holmes, so wonderful a reader of facts that everything made sense to him, everything under the most disparate and unnarrated surfaces….

“There seemed to be an obvious connection between the tasks of Sherlock Holmes and these  medical investigations. It seemed to  him that, like geologists wandering over a lawn buckled by seams of coal, the doctors were trying to work out the reality and the substance of profound events by means of the most external and conspicuous signs.

Such precision of expression! One rejoices in it. That said, there were times when the pace of the novel slowed almost to a halt. Since it comes in at just under six hundred pages, this is perhaps not too surprising. At any rate, it is certainly allowable, given the overall richness with which Philip Hensher has endowed his splendid, sprawling narrative. The Northern Clemency is in the tradition of the great English novel. It is stately, even magisterial in its slow progress, although there were times when I raced through it, needing to know – urgently! – what was to become of  one character or another.

So – do I recommend The Northern Clemency? Yes – oh, yes!

Philip Hensher

Philip Hensher


  1. Literary Musings « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] already reviewed Philip Hensher’s exceptionally fine novel. I finally finished Home several days ago. Although shorter than either of the above titles, it […]

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    […] The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher […]

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    […] Marvels by Barry Unsworth The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters The Birthday Present by Barbara Vine The Northern Clemency by Philip […]

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    […] – Ian McEwan Trauma – Patrick McGrath Cleaver – Tim Parks Senator’s Wife – Sue Miller The Northern Clemency – Philip Hensher The Housekeeper and the Professor – Yoko Ogawa The Human Stain, […]

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