Whispers in the corridors of power

KITCHEN VENOM by Philip Hensher, Hamish Hamilton pounds 16

One of Philip Hensher's characters never reads novels with happy endings. The charm of Hensher's own book is so powerful, its comedy so odd and eccentric, that I simply didn't want it to have an ending at all.

This second novel is remarkable for its avoidance of hackneyed conventions of realism, its sparkling language, its subversion of traditional ways of moving a story along from line to line. His achievement is the product of hard work - you can almost feel the weight of all the words that must have been cut and dropped in order to effect his lightness and grace. The story is peppered with characters struggling to put bits of language together: Francesca writing sub-Plathian poetry as consolation for her mother's death, Henry striving to compose novels and letters to his father, the women in the Commons keeping Hansard up to date, the high-ranking male Clerks recording, in their Journal of the House, the decisions made at Westminster. These cameo portraits of the writer at work function as flattering mirrors for their author, whose own prose is sinewy and beautiful as a dancer on pointes.

The elegant finish of the writing forms the basis for other pleasures offered to the reader. The plot, mainly concerned with the secret lives of the men behind the scenes of Government antics, is at first intriguing then wholly beguiling, twisting tight its threads of power, betrayal, lust and love. The apparently all-seeing narrator whose musings open and close the novel is an unnamed Prime Minister, a cross between Rider Haggard's She and Greta Garbo playing Queen Christina, a mere shell enclosing the story in which she appears as a character, Margaret Thatcher in vulnerable guise on the eve of being deposed. The real narrator is definitely embodied, a sly fellow with a taste for peeping through keyholes, eavesdropping in pubs and tea-rooms, seducing the reader into fascinated voyeurism, egging us on to listen in, like spies on surveillance, to gossip and the whispering of dangerous secrets.

The novel's triumph is its oblique take on the goings-on of politicians. No full-frontal perspectives as though of TV news cameras, appearing to tell the truth, for Hensher. He leads us in by side entrances, up back staircases, shows us the male civil servants lounging and chatting and playing games. His House of Commons is as tightly run as a lunatic asylum, as baffling as Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, and similarly staffed by bizarre and ambiguous creatures: "What their job was, no Member knew; what their purpose was, not even they quite understood. From day to day, they performed small rituals, and they recorded, and they checked what they had recorded, and at the end of the day, they went home and forgot about it. For centuries Clerks had been doing the same things, and for centuries they had sat and played idle games in the morning, and carried out their rituals and their routines. And at the end of the 20th century they met in a room like a corridor directly above the Chamber of the House, and performed their duties at noon, and waited for half past two to arrive, when they would listen to the speeches and the Questions on a loudspeaker wired to the chamber. Burbling on, the words, disappearing into air, set down briefly on paper and forgotten for ever."

This Borgesian world of vast labyrinthine notebooks is shadowed by the world of gay sex in which the main characters move, circling the beautiful tart with a heart of gold, Giacomo, who is finally punished for looking for true love. The sex is brilliantly rendered through dialogue alone. The relationships between women in the novel matter less, and are less convincing. Jane, the daughter of the secretly homosexual Clerk, comes across well, less because she seems to be a "real" woman than because she's as grumpy and bored as her namesake in Philip Larkin's A Girl in Winter. Jane, like all the other characters, inhabits an astonishing world in which women don't have to go out there to earn a living, Oxbridge sounds like finishing school, the poor are invisible, the content of politics is irrelevant, and only minor emotions occur. No wonder, you feel, that Jane seeks a violent way out.

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