The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher, book of a lifetime: Funny, sinister, and a shameless page-turner

 

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The Independent Culture

In September 2008, I spent a month touring the States, promoting a film adaptation of one of my novels. For me, and people like me, choosing the books to bring on such journeys is a task that can never be approached lightly.

Each one is going to take up room in your suitcase and act as a refuge against the outside world on planes and trains, and in lonely hotel bedrooms. Every book needs to earn its place; the author who lets you down will never be forgiven.

There must have been others, but the only book I can recall taking was The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher. It was something of a risk. I'd never read him before, the book weighed more than my head, and there were 738 pages ahead of me that I might love, hate or be indifferent to. But vivid memories of that first week include me grabbing a few moments to read at baggage carousels in Dallas, sneaking in a page or two between interviews in Washington and doing my best to finish another chapter before joining my colleagues in Chicago.

I've always enjoyed long, decades-spanning, state-of-the-nation novels. They're rooted in the minutiae of times and places. The best ones can explore our shifting attitudes through the gradual maturation of characters. The Northern Clemency, which begins in 1974 and ends in the mid-1990s, captures the mores of those decades with affection and regret, charting the story of two couples and their offspring through good, bad and faintly psychotic times. The personal and the political are intertwined as the miners strike but Hensher rejects heroes and villains in favour of ambiguous people, because that's how we are. It's frequently funny, occasionally sinister, and it's something that the best literary novels can aspire to: a shameless page-turner.

For me, Hensher, along with Jonathan Coe, Richard Beard and David Mitchell, ranks among the most interesting, unpredictable British novelists today. His five most recent novels experiment with form, location, time and voice in ways that few other writers dare, but it's in The Northern Clemency that he leaves behind the intense personal dramas of his early work for this more audacious and stimulating territory.

'John Boyne' s latest novel, A History of Loneliness (Doubleday, £14.99), is out this week

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