Books: A confidential clerk

The Bedroom of the Mister's Wife by Philip Hensher Chatto & Windus, pounds 10, 199pp: James Urquhart appreciates a wit with hidden heart

I FIRST read "Work" (one of the longer stories in this collection) in Granta, blithely assuming that the deadpan title clothed Hensher's own six years of experience as a House of Commons Clerk. A select committee of MPs take a trip to discuss monetary union in Prague and Rome, but the organising Clerk sardonically recalls other equally vapid trips - jollies masquerading as research. Many had become legendary among Clerks for one Member's ineptitude or another's tactlessness. Shortly after the committee's return, the Clerk is summarily sacked "for writing indiscreetly" about his job. Hensher's acerbically frank second novel, Kitchen Venom, indeed caused him to leave his job as a Commons Clerk.

"Work" remains an excellent example of his adroit, dry wit. Hensher has the same eye for vivid, paradigmatic detail as specialists in short fiction possess (Helen Simpson's two superb collections come to mind). Ford Sierras become "aubergine portents of the unarguably miserable life". Vera, the quite mad emigre landlady in "White Goods" (the succinct, hilarious opening story), bustles through the kitchen "like a small rhinoceros" to check the contents of a fridge she has named Stalin's Daughter. And Hensher's fond description of Soho's more recherche clientele as "grotesque and warty fauna calling across the urban swamp in the dim hope of some dim likeness" suggests a technique of attraction by no means confined to the gay community.

Homosexuality informs rather than defines Hensher's style and material, being naturally present in most stories just as work or wallpaper is. "Chartists" is a quietly political confession, mapping out a gay group in a who-fucked-whom diagram; "Geographers" masks the restless lonelinesses of cruising behind the horrible reality of queer-bashing. Several characters have fantasy girlfriends or fictitious "normal" lives; Hensher excels at glimpsing the squashed identities of displaced characters whose self- image and desire scratch against the grain of appearance.

The title comes from "Dead Languages", an oblique fable in which the bedroom of the Mister's wife provides an obscure locus of rumour. Hensher defly evokes a world of unreliable conversations, which emphasise the incompleteness with which we perceive others.

Though not entirely coherent as a collection, this volume combines 13 refreshingly tart slices of short fiction. Hensher's hallmark is literary sleight of hand, and most stories, in their own way, conceal as much as they reveal. His tales, though often edged with a gleeful darkness, are neither adult fables nor vignettes burdened with a heavy yoke of morality. But they do invite closer reading, and the carapace of his brightly gleaming prose often encloses an unexpected heart.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent