In hell, the old joke goes, the cooks are British. To be fair, British cuisine has come a long way — today there are Michelin stars to be found in England. But in 1974, the year in which Philip Hensher’s domestic epic, The Northern Clemency, opens, culinary times were bleak, indeed. Consider the menu on offer at Katherine Glover’s cocktail party:
… pastry cases with mushroom filling, and prawn, she’d made three different quiches, she’d made Coronation Chicken (a challenge to eat standing), she’d made assemblages of cheese-and-pineapple and cold sausages, she’d made open Danish sandwiches in tiny squares, a magazine idea, and they were eating it all. There were dishes of crisps, too, and Twiglets, but those didn’t count in the way of making an effort.
Coronation Chicken can best be described as a sort of curried chicken salad, and Twiglets are packaged, Marmite-flavored snacks shaped like twigs. As exotic (and revolting) as much of this might sound to American ears, food is just one of the many effective markers Hensher deploys to situate his sweeping story of lower-middle-class British life through the tumultuous period of industrial upheaval that climaxed with the 1984 miners’ strike (best known to American audiences as the backdrop of Billy Elliott) and witnessed the transition from an industrial to a service-based economy.
That this resolutely British novel was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize is not nearly as surprising as its enthusiastic reception by American critics and “best of” listmakers, as this tale of two Sheffield families is likely, at times, to bewilder American audiences. Rich with cultural references and British slang (“mardy,” which means surly or sulky, and “nesh,” which suggests a fear of or susceptibility to cold), it’s a book best read by Yanks with ready access to Google or Wikipedia. Subtleties of class — a common theme of much British fiction — are also explored here in ways that Americans might have trouble decoding. And hovering over the proceedings, like Marley’s Ghost, is the miners’ strike.
It can be difficult for American audiences to appreciate the impact of the strike, which was marked by violent confrontations and death. (Our closest comparison can be found in President Reagan’s bloodshed-free firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981. In both cases, popular conservative leaders struck what many considered death blows to the modern union.) In England, a 1974 miners’ strike was enough to bring down the Heath government. (The election is alluded to in the novel.) After backing down in the face of a 1981 strike threat, Margaret Thatcher regrouped and planned for the inevitable walkout, outflanking the miners; in 1985, they returned to work one year after walking out, having gained nothing. By 1994 (tellingly, the period during which The Northern Clemency concludes), the coal industry was privatized.
Against this historical moment, Hensher — a prolific critic whose previous novels earned him a place on Granta ‘s 2003 Best Young British Novelists list — tells the story of two families, the Glovers and the Sellerses, and how their lives intersect during the 20-year-period covered in the novel. The Glovers are Sheffield natives, and the Sellerses are “posh,” newly arrived from London; they move in just in time to witness a startling act of familial violence spun out from Katherine Glover’s decision to take a job, a provocative move for a 1974 Midlands housewife. That the newly opened florist shop where she goes to work has replaced a hardware store is a harbinger of one of Hensher’s key concerns. As the Sellerses first arrive in Sheffield, their young son Francis takes in the seven red hills upon which the city was founded:
Each had its valley, some green and lovely, some lined with grimy warehouses, but all ran together, and they were the reason for the city. The waters, long before, had been harnessed to power forges, small hammering enclaves in dells; the steel masters had built their words, outgrowing the forces of the rivers, and the city had locked its blaze and fire inside those huge cliffs. The great noise, mysterious in the streets, continued day and night; those blast furnaces could never be shut down, and men poured in and out at unexpected times.
Twenty years later, when the Glovers’ son Daniel opens a restaurant — which, in an ironic gesture, serves variations on his mother’s 1974 appetizers — it is opened on the site of a converted steel mill.
Summarizing the events of this 600-page novel, however, presents a challenge, as there’s no conventionally linear narrative to describe. Rather — very much like life — things simply happen. Friendships are struck; the Glover and Sellers children grow up; their parents have sex (or not) and not always with each other; daughters move; mothers fall ill; sons rebel against their fathers — and it’s only in looking back over the whole that a design begins to suggest itself. Again, very much like life: subtle, complex, multifarious.
The pleasures of the work are not necessarily in the narrative but in the gentle and witty eye Hensher brings to dozens of moments over 20 years, and his ambitions seem to whisper back to the great 19th-century epics. He is especially good with his confident use of the free indirect style, artfully and convincingly conveying the interior voices of his large and diverse cast of men, women, and children with equal authority. He is as authentic when he is describing the “great terror” of a ten-year-old with an overdue library book as he is describing an unsophisticated young woman struggling to understand Bruckner in a London concert hall: “It seemed crude, even ugly, but after a while she forgot to think whether she liked it or not.” And on the helplessness that afflicts a family with a fallen member, he is heartrending:
He knew that for his father, the night, the end of the day’s visiting when all possibility of being practical had gone and there was nothing to do but sleep as best he could, was the worst time, and he had trained himself not to listen to the noises that came from his parents’ bedroom. If he listened, Francis could not sleep, and the noises of his father’s terror and grief went on into the small hours.
What is especially interesting about The Northern Clemency is that, despite the political change that transforms their lives, the characters themselves rarely engage directly with politics. Only the Glovers’ son Tim, who embraces Marxism (and is one of Hensher’s few tedious creations, endlessly deploying the epithet “Fascist!”) directly tackles the politics of the day. For the others, it becomes a bit like white noise, easily tuned out or held to the margins, occasionally complained about. (Today we’d call it “Miner Fatigue.”) And so despite its political milieu, The Northern Clemency is not a political book per se; but it suggests that momentous change will still seep into the lives of even the unengaged. To British audiences, this omission of engagement is, in itself, suggestive, even provocative. To American readers, adrift amid passing references to NUM, Orgreave, and Arthur Scargill, The Northern Clemency may be best read as a microscopically domestic, attentive, and empathetic view of family — a view that is not as foreign as it seems, Twiglets notwithstanding. As this fine novel reminds us, all unhappy families are more alike than we care to admit.