The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


When I read, just now, on a book-blogger's post that Philip Hensher's THE NORTHERN CLEMENCY was "immensely long and hysterically dull," I did a bit of a double-take. At 600 pages it's long, but "immensely"? Please. And "hysterically dull" is a cute, oxymoronic little turn of phrase, and as I was telling my wife nothing really happens in the book, but to call it "hysterically dull" is a bit, um, hysterical.

The novel is a very leisurely portrait of two families in the Pittsburgh of England, the northern steel town of Sheffield. One family--the Sellers--moves up to Sheffield from London when the father is sent to run an electrical plant in the north, and their neighbors, the Glovers, are Sheffield natives. One reviewer described the families as "lower middle class," but I don't really buy that (although he probably knows the English class system better than I do); both fathers are white-collar managers. Anyway, it's one of those expansive, watch-a-group-of-people-through-their-lives-and-as-they-are-affected-by-larger-historical-events books, with several (at least 12) main characters. Nothing particularly happens in the book: none of the characters really achieve what they want to achieve, and what mostly comes out after observing these people through twenty years of history is just how un-epic most of our lives really are: we want our lives to work out in particular ways, and we have dreams, but they don't work out, and other stuff happens, and we never become all that (forgive this awful MBA word) 'impactful' in the world. But even though we aren't significant in the world, we aren't necessarily unhappy, or unfulfilled. The closest to a tragic character in the novel is Tim, youngest son of the Sheffield natives, who is cursed with a nasty personality and deep-seated obsessions. When the book opens he's consumed by his obsession with snakes, an obsession that is then transferred to Sandy, the London-turned-Sheffield neighbor. Tim later becomes a student radical, spending his days reading Marx in the public library, and we see him as a peripheral character in the Orgreave riot of the 1984 English miners' strike. In the end, he gets a Ph.D. and begins teaching at the local university, only to rekindle his obsession with Sandy (which ends farcically).

I certainly didn't find the book "hysterically dull," although nothing really does happen. I couldn't put it down, in fact. It reminded me not of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, as one snarky reviewer said, but of 90% of Zadie Smith--especially ON BEAUTY and WHITE TEETH without the wacky climax. And in that, I suppose, it's reminiscent of E.M. Forster, Smith's acknowledged master. The novel is incredibly British and I know that I missed a ton of references, especially to the dialect and folk customs of northern England and the subtle differences between London and Sheffield. It doesn't, though, as Updike often did, fall prey to the name-dropping as a way to establish its time--we don't hear about the character's funny period clothes or the pop music of the day to center us in time.


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