King of the Badgers

By PHILIP HENSHER

Though well known in Britain as a novelist, a columnist, an outspoken advocate of gay rights, one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists, and an all-around man of letters, Philip Hensher has made a mark in this country—to the extent that he has—as the author of The Northern Clemency.  The novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and published here last year.  Set in Yorkshire from the mid-seventies to the mid-nineties, it was a chronicle of England’s transformation—or deterioration, as it may be—as it played out in the lives of the members of two families.  That novel was to an extent an obituary tribute to an English past and, in fact, to any sense of connection with it. But it was also a celebration of human idiosyncrasy, a festival of caustic wit and comic brio, and a humane, thoroughly absorbing network of stories that left me, for one, wishing it were twice as long as its 700-plus pages.

Now here is King of the Badgers, another novel preoccupied with change, this time all-encompassing, intrusive, and ugly.  Set in 2008 in Hammouth, a fictional town on an estuary not far from Barnstaple in Devon, it begins with what has become a form of mass entertainment in Britain, a full-bore media carnival of fear, grief, and voyeurism mounted over the disappearance of a child.  In this instance, the victim is nine-year-old China O’Connor, one of her hairdresser mother Heidi’s four children by three fathers.  The family, which also includes Heidi’s dimwitted, sexual miscreant boyfriend, live in one of the housing estates that have been thrown up around Hammouth. That these excrescences are also designated Hammouth is exceedingly painful to the residents of the town proper, itself a charming place whose property values have soared so obligingly in recent years.

The town, whose economy was once connected to the sea, has gone the way of many ports and become a bustling venue for arts and crafts.  It is full of “lady merchants undertaking miniature shopkeeping endeavours…. Lacemakers, batik-printers, humble potters who referred to themselves as ceramicists, the perpetrators of macramé, paper makers, conceptual artists, jewelers and sellers of jewelry, watercolourists, bookbinders, handprinters.” Still, it is not a frivolous place; it has a greengrocer and even a butcher, the latter being, in the narrator’s view, “a means to register the life and independence of any English town.”

Both the preciousness and the small-scale habitability of Hammouth stand in contrast with the unmoored Britain of child abductions, random shootings, and anonymous, exhibitionist sex (including something pretty foul called “dogging”)—all of which figure in these pages. But the mentality of that world of fear and intrusion is moving into Hammouth, its vector being (the perhaps too aptly named) John Calvin.  The case of the missing child, the throngs of ghoulish visitors it has attracted to the town, and the possibility of evildoers going among them, now and forever, have been a gift to Calvin. Head of Hammouth’s Neighborhood Watch group, he is a tireless advocate of putting the whole town under the gaze of CCTVs.  Like every apologist of the ever-expanding surveillance state, his mantra is that “if you have nothing to hide, you have absolutely nothing to fear.”  The loss of privacy, even of the very right to have a private life, is a large theme in this book.  Indeed, the novel, which proceeds chiefly from the points of view of its different characters, does, in one instance, advance the story from what various electronic devices (email, cell phone, card swipes, CCTV) routinely record about an individual’s once-private life.

The unfavorable attention brought to the town by China’s disappearance is galling to the good people of Hammouth proper, but soon enough more personal matters reassert their sway.  Among the residents is Miranda, a university professor and the formidable leader of the local book group.  She and her husband, Kenyon, an NGO bureaucrat with a startling secret, have almost bankrupted themselves by taking on a tremendous mortgage.  Their lumpish, unloved teenage daughter, Hettie, is an antisocial monster.  Catherine and Alex Butterworth, who have recently moved to Hammouth, feel isolated and rebuffed by their neighbors.  Their thirty-six-year-old, morbidly obese son, David, is coming to visit with what he is presenting as his boyfriend, Mauro.  Mauro, a beautiful Italian opportunist, is not interested in David—though he does have a self-destructive habit that has made him a pariah.  Sylvie, an artist whose current work involves cutting out pictures of erect penises for decoupage, wonders when Tony, whom she has allowed to live in her house since his marriage fell apart, will move on.  Sam, genial owner of the town’s specialty cheese shop, and his domestic partner, Harry, are happy enough, but difficulties surround the planning of the next meeting of “the Bears,” a group of men (“all middle-aged, mostly fairly hairy, mostly bearded, and comfortably a touch overweight”) who convene periodically for orgies.

Hensher can be cruel, though rather cheerfully so, with his characters’ appearance and unlovely ways; and he is positively brutal with the gawping, fast-food-chomping, TV-soused, fantasy-addicted lower orders.  Nevertheless, despite one abduction and four deaths (two of them murders), the novel is a surprisingly happy one, culminating in a gratifying act of civic vandalism and the growth of friendship among an odd assortment of people.  Described at times with gossipy particularity and exultant cattiness, life in Hammouth is a twenty-first-century version of life in E. F. Benson’s Tilling (of Mapp and Lucia fame).  At other times, the town and its people are presented as anthropological subjects, and the satire surrounding them is editorial and scathing.  Taken as a whole, King of the Badgers does not possess the overall cohesiveness and narrative muscle of The Northern Clemency, yet it is engrossing in all its parts and astute in its social observations; it is funny and sad, disgusting and disgusted, and thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish.

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