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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)

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