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
Monday 18 April 2011
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)
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 What happens to your body when you give up sugar?
- 2 Licence fee: What is the BBC charge – and how will the changes affect you?
- 3 This is what the photographer has to say about the picture of a weasel riding a woodpecker
- 4 Delhi bus rapist blames dead victim for attack because 'girls are responsible for rape'
- 5 Have sex with your iPad thanks to the new sex toy no-one asked for
Poldark star Heida Reed says show is not that racy: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
Glastonbury 2015: Coldplay will not headline but Florence Welch might play, says Emily Eavis
Kanye West drops 'All Day', music video to come from Steve McQueen
Game of Thrones season 5 spoilers: What we can expect according to George RR Martin's books
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Durham Free School: 'Creationism taught at' free school facing closure
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Ukraine crisis: Top Chinese diplomat backs Putin and says West should 'abandon zero-sum mentality'