Saturday, 12 February 2011

A Year in Books 2011 - The Northern Clemency

I tend to like a lot of big fat American novels that deal with extended family sagas. I think partly because it is something that we don't do that well in this country. At 700+ pages with the promise of covering ordinary people set in the context of social changes, Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency was all set up to be a great state of the nation book.

The novel starts with the Sellers family moving to a suburb of Sheffield and the same day that one of their neighbours walks out on his wife convinced she is having an affair. Over the next 20 years we follow the lives of these 2 families as well as well as various other inhabitants of the street. One son becomes politicised, one an entrepreneur, and one a social exile. One daughter escapes to Australia the other to London.

Normally I love episodic novels with a big cast of characters, however for some reason this one never quite works. Individual events engage but as a whole it just didn't seem to flow. I struggled to remember who was who in each family and too many other characters seemed to drift in and out for no apparent reason. My biggest issues are two fold. The first is the fact that I grew up in a similar middle class environment during the period the novel is set and I didn't recognise anything about any of the characters, they just felt unreal and mannered, a bit contrived. Secondly and my biggest beef is the ending , if there was a clever point to it then it passed me by (I can't really explain why without a great big fat spoiler). Loose ends are left hanging although I guess that is one of his points about ordinary life, loose ends don't all neatly tie up.

I've probably been more negative than I meant to , after all I did stick with it but the last 2 pages annoyed me so much it has coloured my view

You can buy The Northern Clemency here

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