The Fit by Philip Hensher

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Janet and John are a twentysomething couple, married but childless.

Janet and John are a twentysomething couple, married but childless. They live in Wandsworth in a comfortable house given them as a wretchedly generous wedding present by her wealthy former lover. She and her former lover work in the same City bank. John works as an indexer, bringing order to books he despises: books like Haddock, The Fish Which Changed The World.

The Fit opens with John waking to find Janet has left him and that he has hiccups. What follows in Philip Hensher's novel is that staple of English comedy: the gleeful dismantling of an orderly life.

A pixyish eccentric persuades John to drink a bottle of champagne a day, although he is a non-drinker. A quixotic woman photographer gatecrashes his life and family so that everyone, himself included, believes she is his wife's louder and trendier replacement. He smokes, takes drugs, goes clubbing with appalling BritArt wannabes, neglects his work, turns his house into a born-again bachelor sty and receives declarations of love from a pretty receptionist and gay German backpacker.

This is all very diverting but none of it helps cure hiccups or heartache. The one with the healing touch is on her way around the world to forget him. Or is she? The "fit" refers equally to the hiccup attack the hero undergoes from first page to last, to the impulse that drives his wife away, and to the mysterious powers of attraction that make Janet and John so well suited.

Critics who accuse The Fit of being inconsequentially episodic miss the point. A nice running joke, in a novel as painful as it is funny, is the way everyone who meets the hero offers a different cure for his problem. The hiccups (beautifully rendered, as "!") are plainly the expression of an anguish the hero is trying to sidestep; and the unrelated episodes of his adventure, his various attempts at a remedy.

As the novel progresses, darting between farce and something kinder, we realise John carries a terrible burden - memories of a brutally murdered sister - that has left him wary and his family skewed.

At turning-points in the narrative, Hensher offers us glimpses into the minds of first his mother, driven to wandering City churches in search of solace, and then his wife, seduced by the relative warmth of Greece and its islanders. He renders both women so well that it's frustrating to see so little of them.

Perhaps Hensher's purpose was merely to highlight the hero's comparative lack of self-awareness but, while cutting to the quick of the cruel inequality in the emotional adequacy of men and women, the chapters threaten to destabilise the novel's otherwise briskly comic tone. By the same token, most of the novel is narrated by John, whereas these two female chapters lurch into the third person.

Hensher is a publisher's dream, in that each of his books (four novels and a book of stories) has been warmly received; and a marketing manager's nightmare, in that each might almost have been penned by a different hand. At last, after the grand historical manner of The Mulberry Empire, he seems to have returned to the fictional territory of his earliest novel, the blackly comic Kitchen Venom, trusting less to research than to his sharp wit, keen eye and love of London.

He is particularly good at a peculiarly male kind of failed communication. This is typified in his account of the hero attending his sister's wedding, unaware that everyone knows his wife has just left him, or the chapter in which John hits the town (or, rather, Streatham) in a desperate bid for drug-fuelled jollity with a monobrowed self-obsessive conceptual artist with no manners. Does Ms Emin read?

Patrick Gale's latest novel is 'A Sweet Obscurity' (HarperPerennial)