The Northern Clemency, By Philip Hensher

Everything you wanted to know about Sheffield
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There were three doors leading out of the echoing marble lobby: in front, the general library, for anyone who thought reading was for entertainment, cheap sops to keep them quiet, and to the right, the business library, full of telephone directories. Tim despised them both. Two at a time, he went up the august marbled stairs to the first floor, where the reference library was. If you carried on up, or took the strangely two-doored lift, which made the exact same clank at the exact same spot in its ascent, you got to the art gallery with its Op-art café, furnished with tables and chairs all red and plastic and circular....

The foregoing is an account of Sheffield city library, circa 1984. I think we may safely assume that Philip Hensher, studious young South Yorkshire teen that he undoubtedly was, paid many a visit here in the bright Thatcherite dawn. I think we may also safely assume, to take one or two other fondly trawled locales, that he once lived in Clapham and holidayed in Australia. This is not a complaint. The Northern Clemency – vast, compendious, wearing its ambition like an outsize boutonnière – makes a virtue of its exactness, its recapitulative zeal, its absolute determination to jam everything in and sit unshiftably on the lid. It is the kind of novel in which mobile-phone technology is dealt out a paragraph at a time and menu cards are preserved in spiritual aspic. Hensher knows: he was there.

The big, no-stone-unturned conspectus of vast acreages of recent English life has made a bit of a comeback lately. Blake Morrison's South of the River led the pack, closely followed by Richard T Kelly's Crusaders. There are others in the pipeline. I say "made a comeback", as such books are fraught with procedural difficulties. Load up the detail – the Oasis number playing on the radio, Hello! tumbling onto the restaurant parquet – and the result looks stagy. Come in from an angle, on the other hand, and the past and its people can look paper-thin.

Hensher's solution to this puzzle is to do it both ways: precise and playful; formal and left-field; long-winded and larky. One of the edgiest (and funniest) scenes in the book, many years on from its early-1970s grounding, finds an advertising executive giving a lift to a policewoman who turns out to be her brother's ex-girlfriend. Having congratulated the woman for making something of her life, Jane discovers PC Barbara is actually a stripper on her way to a gig.

The mainstays of Hensher's cast throughout this 736-page panorama are middle-class Sheffield neighbours, the Glovers and the Sellers: the former milieu-barnacled locals, the latter initially wary incomers. There are five children, ranging from lady-killing Daniel Glover to torso-flashing Sandra Sellers and Daniel's weird brother Tim, laid low by the traumas of childhood, who comes to a bad but all-too foreseeable end. History, meanwhile, is rushing by with its usual freight of infidelities, triumphs and disappointments, its relationships patiently and sympathetically unwound: Hensher is particularly good on the miseries of Bernie Sellers' retirement, when his uxoriousness suddenly reveals itself as the dominating force in his life.

If Hensher has an abiding theme it is the consequences of the 1984-5 miners' strike, but the politics are never overplayed: Scargill & Co's real effect is catalytic. As is generally the case with these historical cavalcades, not all of this works. It is far too long, with many a scene extending half-a-dozen pages beyond its natural frontier. The twitches on the thread (Mrs Sellers' money-laundering boss at the flower shop) are sometimes a bit conspicuous, along with the teeth imagery (a solitary building "like a single tooth in a foul old mouth", railings like "cut-off blackened teeth" etc). There are times, too, when too many characters end up speaking too much undifferentiated dialogue. Significantly, Hensher is much better at one-on-one situations: the exchanges that set up Daniel's courtship of Helen, for example, are extraordinarily charged and vivid.

But nearly all these defects are overcome by the sheer interest Hensher takes in his creations. By chance I read this back-to-back with Something to Tell You, Hanif Kureishi's trudge through west London media land. Whatever one may think about Hensher's occasional longueurs, he does at least have the merit of writing about real people.