The Northern Clemency

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"1974. Husbands and wives, arm in arm, stroll through an invincible suburb after a summer party, secure and hopeful. Over the next twenty years, everything will change for them, and for England." Set in Sheffield, the novel charts the relationship between two families: Malcolm and Katherine Glover and their three children; and their neighbours the Sellers family, newly arrived from London. The day the Sellerses move in there is a crisis across the road: Malcolm Glover has left home, convinced his wife is having an affair. The consequences of this ...
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Overview

"1974. Husbands and wives, arm in arm, stroll through an invincible suburb after a summer party, secure and hopeful. Over the next twenty years, everything will change for them, and for England." Set in Sheffield, the novel charts the relationship between two families: Malcolm and Katherine Glover and their three children; and their neighbours the Sellers family, newly arrived from London. The day the Sellerses move in there is a crisis across the road: Malcolm Glover has left home, convinced his wife is having an affair. The consequences of this rupture will spread throughout the lives of both couples and their children. Ten-year-old Tim Glover never quite recovers from his mother's public cruelty and the amused taunting of fifteen-year-old Sandra Sellers, childhood crises that will come to a head twenty years later. In the background, England is changing: from a land of fire and industry to a gleaming landscape of shop fronts and chain restaurants, a shift particularly marked in the North with the miners' strike of 1984, which has a dramatic impact on both families.
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Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
…it's easy to imagine some readers waiting impatiently—and futilely—for the story to begin. But Hensher's intricately crafted sentences flash with wit, his dexterity with telling detail is captivating, and his dialogue delivers the guilty pleasure of eavesdropping. If you give yourself over to this novel's organic movement, you'll fall in love with its startlingly perceptive depiction of these people. And eventually, you'll enjoy the satisfaction of seeing how these disparate scenes lock into each other in the most poignant ways…This absorbing portrait of a large group of people invites comparison to Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections or Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, but Hensher is a gentler satirist and treats his characters more tenderly. Indeed, he writes with such illuminating attention to the flutterings of everyday hope and despair that you come away from these pages feeling like a more insightful person. That's all we ask from the best books of the year.
—The Washington Post
Janet Maslin
…a haunting, loving, trenchantly grotesque novel about two families in Sheffield, England, over the course of two politically fraught decades…Though it is in some ways as opaque as its title, The Northern Clemency creates a piercingly insightful group portrait. There is dazzling hyperrealism in Mr. Hensher's descriptive powers.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

A finalist for the Man Booker Prize, Hensher's Sheffield-set suburban drama spans 20 years in the lives of two neighboring families: the Sellers and the Glovers. Katherine Glover's husband, Malcolm, assuming Katherine has been cheating on him, disappears the night before the Sellers arrive in Sheffield. Katherine confides her troubles in her new neighbor, Alice Sellers, and Malcolm quickly returns. Alice's daughter, Sandra, meanwhile, forms unlikely relationships with Katherine's two sons: one a friendship and one a doomed unrequited love sparked by a thoughtless act between two children. Epic in scale but more modest in its focus, Hensher presents a trove of insular, often obsessive characters; the narrative's wide-ranging perspective shifts between the minds of not only the Glovers and Sellers but also their neighbors, classmates and assorted others. Margaret Thatcher's impact comes to the fore during the miner's strike of 1984 and the subsequent privatization of the industry, but the novel's focus remains on domestic drama: the unease and desperation of adolescence, and the seemingly unbridgeable distances between parents, children, siblings and spouses.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Library Journal

On the day in 1974 that the Sellers family moves from suburban London to their new home in Sheffield, chaos reigns across the street at the Glovers'. Father Malcolm has decamped in the wake of his wife Katherine's affair with the owner of the dodgy flower shop where she works as an assistant; Katherine, after a sleepless night, has a savage reaction to the discovery of a pet snake her youngest son, Tim, has been hiding in his bedroom. In spite of the drama of their first encounter, Alice Sellers and Katherine Glover eventually bond over tea and biscuits, sharing concern over their oddball sons and an interest in the external events that consume their lives over the next 30 years, particularly Margaret Thatcher's decision to close the mines. Don't be put off by the length of this shimmering, generously paced novel, which was short-listed for the 2008 Man Booker Prize. Hensher (Kitchen Venom; The Mulberry Empire) offers a deeply pleasurable read whose sympathetic characters will remain with you long after the last page is turned. Highly recommended.
—Barbara Love

Kirkus Reviews
Full-to-bursting drama of family and place from Hensher (The Fit, 2005, etc.), a finalist for this year's Booker Prize. Transplanted from swinging London to South Yorkshire, the Sellers clan winds up on a suburban street among contractors, shopkeepers, housewives and disaffected teenagers-it's 1974, and disaffection is thick in the air. Shy, musical Francis and sister Sandra, a touch on the wild side, meet up with the Glover kids: bookish Jane ("Under no circumstances would she tell any of these people that she, Jane, was writing a novel"); Daniel, busily daydreaming of sex with anything animate; and Tim, devoted to snakes and deeply troubled. The families do what families do on that leafy street beneath the blue suburban skies, and, given that there is no childhood without trauma, traumas ensue. Fast-forward a decade, with the good children in university and beginning careers. Family life is disintegrating as jobs at the colliery dry up and the me-first, new-economy society emerges with all the old-class assumptions intact. Then fast-forward to the '90s, with the kids leading lives of quiet desperation. Scattered around the world, they are always pulled back to the moors and hills. While not much is done, a lot is talked about-and the dialogue is spot on. Hensher's saga of 19th-century proportions is worth reading, even if the plot plods from time to time.
From the Publisher
“A richly textured, closely observed saga. . . . Hensher’s eye for detail is precise and his touch sure. . . . Reminds one of Mrs. Gaskell or even Dickens.”
Wall Street Journal
 
“Symphonic. . . . A strong, ambitious work. . . . Hensher creates, with sumptuous thoroughness, a whole world.”
Seattle Times
 
“Dazzling. . . . Haunting. . . . Relentlessly enveloping. . . . A piercingly insightful group portrait.”
The New York Times
 
“Absorbing. . . . [Hensher] writes with such illuminating attention to the flutterings of everyday hope and despair that you come away from these pages feeling like a more insightful person.”
The Washington Post
 
“Admirable. . . . A state-of-the-art state-of-the-nation novel.”
Wall Street Journal
 
“Invites comparison to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections or Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, but Hensher is a gentler satirist and treats his characters more tenderly.”
Washington Post
 
“Universal. . . . Hensher’s humanism, equal parts humor and sympathy, feels especially welcome. Reading it is a bit like wandering through your old neighborhood, listening in on the thoughts of the residents in each house, finally able to apprehend the hilarious, pitiful and miraculous expanse of it all.”
—Salon.com
 
“Masterful. . . . The real thing: a book that engages with all our daily heartbreak and moments of heady joy as we live fully in the world. . . . A welcome antidote to the often synthetic concerns of too many novels.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch
 
“Brilliantly styled. . . . Hensher is fascinatingly good on how social transformation manifests itself in the textures, colours and manners of a culture. . . . Not only extremely funny, but also deeply humane.”
Sunday Times (London)
 
“Remarkable. . . . As emotionally engaged as political satire and as compulsively readable as a saga. . . . At the heart of the elegant narrative architecture, the fine comic timing and exuberant detail, there flickers a sense that generosity, a sense of others, is the best we can do. . . . Dazzling.”
Sunday Telegraph (London)
 
“A tremendous book. . . . Hensher has composed not so much a condition-of-England as a condition-of-humanity novel, which is gripping and surprising and shocking in all kinds of unpredictable ways, and enormously wide in psychological and moral scope.”
—Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass
 
“Literary magic. . . . An astonishing joy to read.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
 
“This is the most absorbing and enjoyable novel I’ve read since the heyday of A. S. Byatt. . . . Such is Hensher’s wit and humanity and so rich in detail is his crowded canvas, we soon realize that the novel is indeed a modern epic. . . . You won’t want to skip a single sentence. It strides along, packed with cherishable observations.”
—Roger Lewis, Sunday Express (London)
 
“Combining [Hensher’s] intelligence with humanity and storytelling drive, The Northern Clemency powerfully slices and preserves 20 years of British life and deserves to be remembered for at least that length of time. . . . As clever and as elegant as Hensher’s previous books.”
Esquire
 
“An engrossing and hugely impressive novel. . . . Hensher is a brilliant anatomist of familial tension and marshals his large cast of characters deftly. He has an impeccable eye for nuances of character and setting.”
The Times (London)
 
“Dickensian. . . . A portrait of the changing face of northern England from the Thatcher era to the early days of Tony Blair. . . . So precisely rendered, one can easily imagine it becoming required reading for set designers everywhere.”
Christian Science Monitor
 
“A truly fine achievement. . . . It is a tribute to Hensher’s powers of invention that this saga becomes so involving that no detail is too small. And Hensher is at his brilliant best in the details.”
New Statesman (UK)
 
“An enjoyable nostalgia fest as well as an acute cultural history of provincial England. . . . Engrossing, amusing and moving.”
Independent (London)
 
“A fluent and immensely readable piece of work, sustained by a pleasure in its details. . . . There is a timelessness about Hensher’s vision that is quite unusual these days, suggesting a quietly desperate but stable Englishness that carries on unchanged beneath a surface that is slowly becoming a little more glitzy, a little richer.”
Irish Times
The Barnes & Noble Review
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. --Mark Sarvas

Mark Sarvas' debut novel, Harry, Revised, has been sold in a dozen countries around the world. He is host of the literary blog The Elegant Variation and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400044481
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/11/2008
  • Pages: 608
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Philip Hensher’s novels include Kitchen Venom, which won the Somerset Maugham Award, and The Mulberry Empire, which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Chosen by Granta as one of its best young British novelists, he is professor of creative writing at Exeter University and a columnist for The Independent. He lives in London.
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Read an Excerpt

So the garden of number eighty-four is nothing more than a sort of playground for all the kids of the neighbourhood?”

“I wouldn’t say all,” Mrs. Arbuthnot said. “I would have said it was only the Glovers’ children.”

“All of them?” Mrs. Warner—Karen, now—said. “The girl seems so quiet. It’s the elder boy, really.”

“I’ve seen the girl going in there too,” Mrs. Arbuthnot said. “It’s during the day with her. She’s on her own generally. I grant you, it’s the older boy who goes in after dark, and he’s got people with him. Girls, one at a time. There’ll be trouble with both those boys.”

“But, Mrs. . . .” Mr. Warner said. He was slow to catch people’s names.

“Call me Anthea,” Mrs. Arbuthnot said. “Now that we’ve finally met.”

“I mean, Anthea,” Mr. Warner said, “why doesn’t anyone tell the parents? They surely can’t know.”

“That I don’t understand,” Mrs. Arbuthnot said. She was stately, forty-six, divorced, at number ninety-three, almost opposite the empty house. “This isn’t the best opportunity, I dare say.”

They were at the Glovers’. It was a party; the neighbourhood had been invited. Most had been puzzled by the invitation, knowing the couple and their three children only by sight. Mrs. Arbuthnot and Mrs. Warner had passed the time of day on occasion. They had arrived more or less at the same time; both had the habit, at a party, of moving swiftly to the back wall the better to watch arrivals. They had made common ground, and Mrs. Warner’s husband had been introduced. He worked for the local council in a position of some authority.

It was a Friday night in August. The room was filling up, in a slightly bemused way; the neighbours, nervously boastful, were exchanging compliments about each other’s gardens; conver?sations about motor-cars were running their usual course.

“It’s a nice thing for her to do,” Mrs. Warner said, who always prided herself on thinking the best of others. She had left her son, nineteen, a worry, at home; she thought the party might have been smarter than it was, not knowing the Glovers. Other people’s children had come.

“She’s a nice woman, I believe,” Mrs. Arbuthnot said, who had her own private names for almost everyone in the room, the Warners, the Glovers included. “It’s a shame she couldn’t have waited a week or two, though.”

“Yes?” Mr. Warner said, who believed that if a thing could be done today, it shouldn’t be put off until tomorrow.

“There’s new people moving into number eighty-four,” Mrs. Arbuthnot said. “It might have been nice to introduce them to everyone. They’re moving in next week.”

“Just opposite Anthea’s,” Mrs. Warner explained to her husband.

“Perhaps it wasn’t ideal,” Mr. Warner said. “From the point of view of dates.”

“People are busy in August, these days,” Mrs. Arbuthnot said. “They go away, don’t they?”

“We were thinking about the Algarve,” Mrs. Warner said.

“Oh, the Algarve,” Mrs. Arbuthnot said, encouraging and patronizing as a magazine.

It was a good party, like other parties. Mrs. Glover was in a long dress: pale blue and high at the neck, it clung to her; on it were printed the names of capital cities. In vain, Mrs. Warner ran her eyes over it, looking for the name of the Algarve, but it was not there.

“Nibble?” Mrs. Glover said, frankly holding out a potato wrapped in foil, spiked with miniature assemblages of cheese and pineapple, wee cold sausages iced with fat. Her hair was swept up and pulled in, in a chignon and ringlets. They had all dressed, but she had made the most effort for her own party.

“I so like your unit,” Mrs. Arbuthnot said.

“We got fed up with the old sideboard,” Mrs. Glover said. “It was Malcolm’s mother’s, so he felt he had to take it when she went into a home. She couldn’t have all her things, naturally, so we took it, and then one day, I just looked at it and it just seemed so ugly I had to get rid of it. We got the unit from Cole’s, actually.”

“You got it in Sheffield?” Mrs. Arbuthnot said.

“I know,” Mrs. Glover said. “I saw it and I fell in love with it.”

“It’s very nice,” Mrs. Warner said. “I like old things, too.”

“I know what you mean,” Katherine Glover said. “I love them, really. I just think they have so much more character than new furniture. I’d love to live in an old house.”

There was a pause.

“But it’s original, isn’t it?” Mr. Warner said, helping her out; they seemed to be stuck on the white unit, windowed with brown smoked glass.

“Yes,” Katherine Glover said. She gestured around the room. “I think we’ve got it looking quite nice now. Finally!”

They all laughed.

“We’ve lived here for ten years!” she said vivaciously, as if hoping for another laugh. “But—”

Karen Warner remarked that it was strange how you didn’t get to meet your neighbours properly, these days.

“This was a nice idea,” Mr. Warner said, “having a party like this.” But he was wondering why, on this warm August night, the party was staying indoors and not moving out on to the patio.

There were five of them, the Glovers, in the room. Malcolm was in a suit, a borderline vivid blue, waisted and flaring about his skinny hips, flaring more modestly about the ankles, his tie a fat cushion at his neck. He carried a bottle from group to group, his smile illuminating as he moved on. “My wife’s idea,” he was saying to a new couple about the party. “I work in the Huddersfield and Harrogate.”

“You work in Harrogate?” the man said. “That’s quite a drive every day.”

“No,” Malcolm said, after a heavy pause. “The Huddersfield and Harrogate.”

“The building society?” the woman said. She was a nursery nurse, pregnant herself.

“Yes,” Malcolm said, his puzzled voice rising. “Yes, the Huddersfield and Harrogate, our main offices, just off Fargate opposite the Roman Catholic cathedral. It’s women like parties, mostly. It was my wife’s idea.”

“It was a nice idea,” the husband said. “We’ve not met a lot of people in the street.”

“We’ve admired your front garden,” the wife said. She sneezed.

“The idea was,” Malcolm said, “that by now there’d be new people in number eighty-four. Just over there. They’d have been more than welcome.”

“That’s a nice thought,” the woman said, sneezing again.

“But there must have been a hold-up,” Malcolm said. “At any rate, it’s still empty.”

Elsewhere in the room, people were talking about the empty house, and about the new inhabitants.

“Anthea Arbuthnot’s met them,” a man was saying.

“Oh, Anthea,” a woman replied, and laughed. “What she doesn’t know isn’t worth knowing.”

“We call her the Rayfield Avenue Clarion,” someone’s teenage daughter said, and blushed.

“I was saying,” the man said, “Anthea Arbuthnot’s met them,” as Mrs. Arbuthnot came up, expertly balancing a pastry case filled with mushroom sauce.

“Met who?” Mrs. Arbuthnot said.

“The new people,” he said. “Over the road.”

“You don’t miss much,” she said, in a not exactly unfriendly way. “Yes, I met them, quite by chance. The house, it’s being sold by Eadon Lockwood and Riddle, which sold me my house too, five years back. It was the same lady, which is quite a coinci?dence. Her name’s Mary, she breeds chocolate Labradors in her spare time, which was a little bond between us, a nice lady. I saw her coming out of the house one day with a couple as I was going down the road with Paddy, my dog, you know, and stopped to say hello. Naturally she introduced me to the people, they’d bought it by then, they were just having another look over. Measuring up for curtains and carpets, I dare say.”

The Glover girl, Jane, was at the edge of their circle, listening, her flowery print frock, her lank hair, the empty plate she had been carrying round the guests all drooping listlessly. The adults shifted politely, smiling. She was fourteen or so; just about old enough for this sort of thing. “Are they nice?” she said.

Mrs. Arbuthnot laughed, not at all kindly. Jane Glover just looked at her, waiting for the answer. “Are they nice?” Mrs. Arbuthnot said. “I don’t know about that. They’re from London. He’s very London. She didn’t say anything much. They’ve got two children, nine, and a fourteen-year-old girl, I think she said.”

“Were the children nice?” Jane said, and now she was surely being deliberately childish.

“They weren’t there,” Mrs. Arbuthnot said. “Their name—let me see—it’s on the tip of my tongue . . . they’re called—Mr. and Mrs. Sellers. That’s it.”

“London children,” a man said, shaking his head.

“I hope they’re nice,” Jane said, and then just walked away. She knew all about Mrs. Arbuthnot. Under no circumstances would she tell any of these people that she, Jane, was writing a novel. Already she hated the girl, over the road, fourteen.

“He’ll break some hearts,” someone was saying, in another part of the room. It was Daniel Glover they were talking about. He was sixteen, lounging over the edge of the sofa, his long legs spread. His mouth hung slightly open, and from time to time he brushed away the soft fall of long black hair. Every twenty seconds the pregnant nursery nurse was sneezing, and it was Daniel she was sneezing at. His lush musk odour filled the room, making the air itch; it was the eau-de- toilette he’d lifted from Cole’s on Tuesday, and he’d practically bathed in the stuff.

Daniel looked at the party. He was thinking about sex, and he counted the women. Then he eliminated the unattractive ones, the ones over thirty-five, his mother and sister—no, he brought his sister back in just for the hell of it. Balanced it out, removed some of the men. Then—what they do, he’d read about it—the men throw their keys into a bowl, the women pick them out, then—

He lost himself in lewd speculation. Or—he started again—you could just have an orgy here. A sex orgy on the carpet. Because that happened all the time, he’d read about it. It just didn’t happen here, in this house. But he bet somewhere round here it happened all the time. Probably on this street.

Mrs. Arbuthnot observed with some interest that the elder Glover boy had an erection. She enjoyed the sight: she had divorced six years ago, her long-held ambition to take part in a game of strip poker never having been fulfilled or, indeed, mentioned to anyone, least of all her ex-husband. She envisaged, like Daniel, scenes of satisfaction; for her, they were what Daniel had done, or might be doing, to the girls in the back garden of number eighty-four, watched soberly by its four dark empty windows.

“Hay fever,” the nursery nurse said politely, still sneezing, feeling with alarm a little dribble in her knickers.

“They’re called Mr. and Mrs. Sellers,” someone said. “They paid seventeen thousand for the house. Anthea Arbuthnot told me.”

Katherine Glover was relaxing, now that her party was being a success. They were eating the food; she’d made 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. They were drinking the wine, Malcolm’s choice—she’d had three glasses—and in the background, the music was exactly right, Mozart, Elvira Madigan. It was all being a great success.

The sexes were dividing now: the men were talking about their jobs, their cars, about the election, even; the women about their children’s schools, about the cost of living, and about each other.

“Your hand’s never out of your pocket,” one said, and another observed that her house had doubled in value in five years. One woman, worldly in manner, said that Sheffield would improve when Sainsbury’s got round to opening a branch, as she’d heard they were planning to.

“Oh, we know Mrs. Thurston,” another said, referring to the headmistress of one of the local schools.

“She teaches the piano, doesn’t she?” the nursery nurse said hopefully. “On Charrington Road?” She was set right, and the others started recommending piano teachers to each other, boasting about their children’s grades, merits and distinctions.

“It’s all going to the dogs,” a man said. “This’ll be a third-world country by 1980,” and the others gravely agreed. Malcolm made his rounds again; for the last twenty minutes he had said nothing to anyone, only smiled and offered the bottle, and he was circling too soon. All the glasses were full, and the guests refused with a smile, wondering about their host, who they did not know. Absently, he offered the bottle to Daniel, who took the opportunity, his fourth, to refill his glass, still thinking of tits.

“It would have been nice if they could have come,” Katherine said again. “Sellers, they’re called.”

“Your son’s getting to be a handsome young man,” they said in reply.

“I’ve got two,” Katherine said, laughing.

“Yes,” they said, wondering where the other was, the one they wouldn’t have meant, since he was, what?, nine years old.

“We invited Mrs. Topsfield, too,” she said. “The old lady who lives in the great big house, the old one, at the bottom of the road, the edge of the moor. But only to be polite—she wouldn’t be likely to come at her age.”

“I’ve often wondered about her,” someone said. “A gorgeous house.”

“It’s just her in it, apparently,” Katherine said.

“I do think they’ve done their house beautifully,” Karen Warner said to her husband; they had been marooned together at one side of the room. It was a handsome room; one wall had been covered with a bold paper in a bamboo print, jungle green with lemony highlights, and the others painted the palest beige. The fat suite, pushed back against the walls, and the carpet were rough oatmeal; instead of a fourth wall, a single picture window gave on to the garden.

“It’s quite like our house, the way it’s arranged,” Warner said.

“Not quite, though,” Karen said. The estate, a hundred and twenty houses, all built in one go ten years before, was elegantly varied; there were a dozen or more differently shaped houses, arranged irregularly. There was nothing municipal about the estate; but, of course, she had said this many times before. “Had you heard anything at work about a Sainsbury’s opening in Sheffield?” Warner informed his wife that he had not, and that such information would not have come his way in the course of his work at the council. “I do like that unit,” she said in a rush, because now she, too, had seen the elder Glover boy, sprawled about his erection.

“I didn’t expect to be invited,” the nursery nurse was saying, to someone she didn’t know, “but I’m glad I came.” It had been ten days before; she had been resting in the afternoon, her feet, horribly swollen in this weather even at six months, up on a stool. Through the window she had seen a woman in a sleeveless summer dress stomping up the drive; a familiar figure, some sort of neighbour, with an air of imminent complaint about her walk. What now? she’d thought wearily. But the woman hadn’t rung: there was the clatter of something through the letterbox that proved, when her husband got home and picked it up, to be an invitation. “But who are they?” he’d said. “I think we might as well go,” she’d said, not answering his question.

But the Glovers had three children, surely: the youngest a boy, wasn’t he? Maybe he was in bed.

The youngest was behind the sofa: he had been there most of the evening, slipping behind it quite early on. Timothy had with him his favourite book in the whole world. He had been reading it steadily all evening, letting his eye run over the familiar entries. He had taken it out from the public library eleven months before; he had renewed it once, then stopped bothering. It was now ten months overdue, which caused him great terror whenever he thought of it. In happy moments, he decided that he could conceal the book where no one would find it, and his parents would never uncover the gigantic fine now building up. The fear of punishment was huge in him.

But the terror did not touch the book. It was as good now as ever. The pleasure he found in letting his eye ride over it, touching on category after category, overrode anything else. Whenever he could, he returned to its calm instructions. Even when it was not quite right of him to do so, he sensed, he found a way to be alone with it, as now burrowing behind the sofa at his parents’ party. It was so important to him that often in the last months he had found himself telling others—his best friends Simon and Ian, his sister Jane, his mother but for some reason not his brother Daniel, not his father—some facts about his subject. More oddly, he found himself asking them questions about it, as if they could instruct him, feigning ignorance, wanting to find out if they knew what he already did.

The book was about snakes. Timothy gazed at the photographs as if at a family album, committing the names he already knew to a further refreshment of memory.

He had been there for three hours, wedged between the sofa and the large picture window. If the party went outside, they would see him, and probably laugh. From time to time the back of the sofa, the porridgy tweed panels between the wood frames, bulged as someone sat down, swelling towards him, like some inchoate mass searching for him. There was a queer smell of dust down here, and the nasty smell of spilt alcohol. It was his favourite place when there was anyone in the house.

“I don’t know where he’s got to,” Katherine Glover said to a departing guest; it was too warm for anyone to have brought coats, but she made a helpful gesture. “He’s a little bit shy.”

The guest smiled; her husband made a honking noise, understanding that the woman was talking about her son, not knowing that there was any son apart from the great lout who had been lolling on the sofa, gawping at the ladies.

On the mat was an envelope, which, surely, had not been there earlier; it was addressed to Katherine, and she picked it up. In front of her, the remains of her party; the poor pregnant woman, harassed and tired, waiting for her husband to want to go. But the husband was drunk, his hair rumpled, making a hash of a joke to a group of husbands. Where was Malcolm? Sitting down, his host’s bottle in his hand, all refills at an end; and the Mozart had come to an end, too, leaving the patient silence to dismiss the guests.

“You looked so nice,” Jane said to her mother, coming up to her in the hall, munching a cheese straw, “in your posh frock and your hair like that.”

Katherine felt so terribly tired. “I don’t know why I bothered,” she said crossly. “They didn’t appreciate it at all.”

Jane looked at her mother in astonishment. “It was a lovely party,” she said. “You should always wear your hair like that.”

“What, to work?” Katherine said. “Don’t be daft.”

“Thank you so much,” the drunk man was saying, “for a lovely time, my dear. We’ve had a lovely, lovely time.”

He leant towards her, as if to kiss her, but did not; Katherine had him by the shoulders, a gesture that might have been affectionate, holding him at arm’s-length inspection.

“We’ve had a very good time,” the pregnant woman said. But it didn’t look it.

“When is your baby due?” Jane said abruptly.

“In November,” the woman said, not smiling. She took her husband by the arm, and they went.

“Where’s your dad?” Katherine said, but then Daniel was in the hall, up from the sofa for the first time all evening.

“Just going out for a second,” he muttered.

“One second—” Katherine said, but he was gone. “Oh, well.”

And then Daniel, who had answered all polite inquiries with a brief grunt and a shrug, who had not moved from his perch on the arm of the sofa, like a vast and lurid ornament, proved himself to have been all along the ringmaster of the festivities. Because with his departure the party was decisively over, and the few remaining guests moved towards the front door where Mrs. Glover, her daughter at her side, was standing. In kindness, they bent and said a word to Malcolm, who said something in return, and then, with a chorus of thanks, they were out.

“I do love your unit,” Mrs. Warner said over her shoulder, a final kindly thought disappearing into the lush August night. “As I was saying, I do love your . . .”

Goodbye, goodbye . . . and Katherine opened the envelope in her hand. It was an unfamiliar hand, elegant and swooping, in real ink, and the general gist of apology was clear before the signature was deciphered. She read it again, and smiled, her first genuine smile all evening.

“Have they all gone?” she heard Timothy saying, as he got up from behind the sofa, book in hand.

“I think so,” his father said, his voice muffled, regretful in the other room. “Where’s your brother?”

From the Hardcover edition.

Read More Show Less

Introduction

“A richly textured, closely observed saga. . . . Hensher’s eye for detail is precise and his touch sure. . . . Reminds one of Mrs. Gaskell or even Dickens.” —The Wall Street Journal

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of Philip Hensher's epic, vividly rendered novel The Northern Clemency, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

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Foreword

1. What do you think the title means? Who in the novel is seeking clemency, who deserves it, and who receives it?

2. When you first read the epigraph from E. M. Forster, what did you think it meant? Now that you've read the novel, how has your understanding changed?

3. Who is the main character in this novel? Is there more than one? Who did you most, and least, enjoy spending time with? Which character undergoes the greatest transformation? In what ways is he/she transformed?

4. Before reading the novel, how familiar were you with contemporary British history? How did that affect your reading experience?

5. What role does economics play in the characters' lives? How does the miners' strike affect them?

6. “Mardy,” “Nesh,” “The Giant Rat of Sumatra”… What do the titles of the novel's ports signify? How do they help to organize the novel?

7. Several of the female characters believe that, by using sex, “you could make someone do what you wanted them to do” [p. 293]. What are the ramifications of this? Do any of the men use sex in a similar way?

8. The notion of keeping secrets—anything from Nick's double life to Tim's obsession with Sandra—is a major theme in the novel. Who benefits by being circumspect, and who is damaged by it? What do you think the novel demonstrates about secrets?

9. Compare Katherine's relationships with Malcolm and with Nick. What does she get from each of them? Why does she stay with Malcolm? Why does Malcolm stay with her, especially after Nick's testimony?

10. Discuss the scene in which Katherine kills Tim's snake. How does this one actaffect everyone in the Sellers and Glover families?

11. In what ways are the two families alike? How are they different?

12. What is the significance of “the game,” which Francis and, eventually, Tim play at school? How does it foreshadow their adult lives?

13. Reread the passage about family life that begins at the bottom of page 285. In your own life, do you find this to be accurate? How does having an audience make a family more cohesive?

14. Why doesn't Daniel tell his parents about Tim's visits to Andrew in the hospital [p. 295-97]? How might things have changed if he had?

15. Several ancillary characters—Anthea, Andrew, Sonia—have their own side stories. What do these contribute to your understanding of the main characters' behavior?

16. Why do you think Sandra changes her name?

17. Take another look at Francis's confessions to his mother [p. 633-34]. Do you think Alice hears what he's saying? How does this figure into his final scene, on the train [p. 589-90]?

18. Which character(s) have what you consider to be happy endings? Why?

19. “So the garden—”: What is your opinion of the author's twist at the end? How did it affect your understanding of what you'd read? Was it a satisfying ending?

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

1. What do you think the title means? Who in the novel is seeking clemency, who deserves it, and who receives it?

2. When you first read the epigraph from E. M. Forster, what did you think it meant? Now that you've read the novel, how has your understanding changed?

3. Who is the main character in this novel? Is there more than one? Who did you most, and least, enjoy spending time with? Which character undergoes the greatest transformation? In what ways is he/she transformed?

4. Before reading the novel, how familiar were you with contemporary British history? How did that affect your reading experience?

5. What role does economics play in the characters' lives? How does the miners' strike affect them?

6. “Mardy,” “Nesh,” “The Giant Rat of Sumatra”… What do the titles of the novel's ports signify? How do they help to organize the novel?

7. Several of the female characters believe that, by using sex, “you could make someone do what you wanted them to do” [p. 293]. What are the ramifications of this? Do any of the men use sex in a similar way?

8. The notion of keeping secrets—anything from Nick's double life to Tim's obsession with Sandra—is a major theme in the novel. Who benefits by being circumspect, and who is damaged by it? What do you think the novel demonstrates about secrets?

9. Compare Katherine's relationships with Malcolm and with Nick. What does she get from each of them? Why does she stay with Malcolm? Why does Malcolm stay with her, especially after Nick's testimony?

10. Discuss the scene in which Katherine kills Tim's snake. How does this one act affect everyone in the Sellers and Glover families?

11. In what ways are the two families alike? How are they different?

12. What is the significance of “the game,” which Francis and, eventually, Tim play at school? How does it foreshadow their adult lives?

13. Reread the passage about family life that begins at the bottom of page 285. In your own life, do you find this to be accurate? How does having an audience make a family more cohesive?

14. Why doesn't Daniel tell his parents about Tim's visits to Andrew in the hospital [p. 295-97]? How might things have changed if he had?

15. Several ancillary characters—Anthea, Andrew, Sonia—have their own side stories. What do these contribute to your understanding of the main characters' behavior?

16. Why do you think Sandra changes her name?

17. Take another look at Francis's confessions to his mother [p. 633-34]. Do you think Alice hears what he's saying? How does this figure into his final scene, on the train [p. 589-90]?

18. Which character(s) have what you consider to be happy endings? Why?

19. “So the garden—”: What is your opinion of the author's twist at the end? How did it affect your understanding of what you'd read? Was it a satisfying ending?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 11 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 16, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    This is an interesting family drama

    In 1974, the Sellars brood leaves hip London for suburban ennui in Sheffield in the inappropriately named South Yorkshire as they trek to the north. The two Sellars sisters, reticent Francis and extroverted Sandra are concerned that life in the burbs will prove boring as the former loves music and the latter loves swinging London.<BR/><BR/>Their neighbors, the Glover family consists of two parents and three kids. Patriarch Malcolm is outraged when he finds evidence that his wife Katherine is having an affair. As for the children, bookworm Jane conceals from everyone she is writing a novel; Daniel¿s brain consists of one icon sex with any carbon bearing species; and the youngest preadolescent Tim is friendlier with snakes than people.<BR/><BR/>One decade later, the kids are away from home either at universities or working. The empty nest syndrome is compounded with employment issues for the older generation as their hobs die and the new economy begins to shape everyone. Into the nineties, the children as adults live around the world, but come home as often as they can seek solace.<BR/><BR/>This is an interesting family drama that showcases two families during the Thatcher Era. Each of the ensemble cast is fully developed as readers see them all from multiple perspectives. Although the story line is extremely passive, fans will relish this deep character study of two generations struggling in different ways to survive the Conservative period, a time of technology and dramatically changing globalization (Thomas Friedman¿s The World Is Flat comes to mind although much of his treatise occurs after the events of THE NORTHERN CLEMENCY) in which the older generation feels hopelessly lost and left behind and their offspring disillusioned and unhappy.<BR/><BR/>Harriet Klausner

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    A Russian novel set in northern England and a perfect book for a long plane trip

    Hencher's characters--two families in 1970s Sheffield--are flawed and often trying, but his vivid writing and generous spirit connect you to them and even after nearly 900 pages, you are loath to let them go.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 15, 2012

    A tome

    Well-written, but entirely too long.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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