FOURTH ESTATE, £18.99 Order for £16.99 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

King of the Badgers, By Philip Hensher

Big trouble in Middle England

Philip Hensher thinks big. His previous novel, The Northern Clemency, was a family saga set in Sheffield spanning the last quarter of the 20th century.

An earlier book, The Mulberry Empire, dealt with Britain's doomed ambitions in Afghanistan in the late 1830s. King of the Badgers sets out to anatomise contemporary Middle England.

The novel manages to delight and infuriate in roughly equal measure. Hensher's model is less Middlemarch than Cranford, albeit a Cranford with lots of sex. Like Mrs Gaskell, he explores a provincial community and reveals its characters through a narrative style that could be labelled anecdotal sociology. Hanmouth is a fictional town on the coast of North Devon. The picturesque houses are inhabited by middle-class incomers and the estuary is the only British home of the ring-necked pipit.

The narrative dips in and out of the lives of a selection of residents as Hensher guides the reader through several vaguely interrelated events. An ambitious hairdresser and her boyfriend fake the kidnapping of seven-year-old China, the hairdresser's unlovely daughter from the suburban badlands. The citizens of the old town watch in disgust as their home becomes the centre of a media frenzy. The clumsily named John Calvin, who dominates the Neighbourhood Watch and even the police with mysterious efficiency, becomes the hairdresser's confidant; his civic mission is to fill the place with CCTV cameras – both a symptom and a cause of the rising tide of paranoia in the town.

Hensher seems to lose interest in China's fate after the first third of the book. Instead, he turns his attention to a detailed account of a gay orgy hosted by Sam and his partner, Harry. Sam, who owns a shop selling obscure cheeses, is perhaps the nearest thing to a moral centre that the novel possesses.

China's kidnapping promises the type of narrative coherence that crime and its consequences provide. Hensher subverts this, but the problem is that this long novel lacks any other feature to tie it together, apart from its setting. The result is a lack of structure, a sense of self-indulgence. On the other hand, the book is wonderfully readable. Hensher's dialogue is marvellous, and so is his ability to mock his characters, but to do so with affection, even with compassion.

Andrew Taylor's latest novel is 'The Anatomy of Ghosts' (Penguin)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
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.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    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