Tuesday, December 29, 2009

'The Northern Clemency' is Worth the 600 Page Read

Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, as well as an Amazon.com Best of the Month in November 2008. Despite meeting high acclaim in some circles, the novel also has garnered much criticism for its length (600 pages), its focus on everyday goings-on (i.e., its dullness), its lack of proper attention to serious topics (some felt it took a flippant tone when describing the 1984 miner's strike), and its somewhat disappointing ending.

This was a book which I was excited to begin reading some odd months ago after reading reviews on Amazon.com, then a book which I stopped reading after 200+ pages due to its seeming indirection. However, it has been a book which I continued thinking about for the months between my initial reading and this week, when I finished it. The characters came alive for me on some level, which made me wonder what happened to them by the novel's end, and which proved to be the reason I picked up the novel again.

I am a fast reader, able to read a book in only a day or two when I have the time and am driven by its plot. The Northern Clemency foiled all my attempts at quick reading. Hensher writes in a dense prose which I was unable to read any faster than 20-30 pages in an hour. If I tried to scan some places which were slow-moving and overly-descriptive, I found myself floundering in the novel without a grasp on the events or characters. In the end, I gave myself over to reading each word, each detail with precision, and for this I was rewarded with a truly pleasurable reading experience. For this novel, with all its plot length (as I mentioned above, the novel spans 600 pages and twenty years), is actually nothing more than a focus on character.

Hensher can be applauded for writing a novel about everyday life in northern England; he also addresses important social and political issues in English life; there are plot twists and turns which create interest and move the story along (a lot happens to people in a twenty-year period of life). However, his greatest accomplishment in The Northern Clemency is his unbelievable attention to character development, which is especially interesting given the twenty year span we are able to watch them grow and mature through.

The Northern Clemency is ultimately the story of two families: the Glovers (native to the town of Sheffield, England) and the Sellers (who move there from London in 1974). Hensher paints a portrait of the individual members in each family (parents and two children for the Sellers -- parents and three children for the Glovers). Readers learn almost everything about these families, from their admirable qualities to their embarrassing, sometimes life-changing mistakes. Hensher also does a decent job at examining the dynamic within a family. We have all wondered how a son or daughter developed into the person they are, given that they came from their particular parents. How often we are surprised with the way one or another child turns out, and Hensher proves this true in The Northern Clemency. Each character is truly that -- a character, complete with moments of tenderness and admirability and, conversely, with times that will turn your stomach with their selfishness and even malice.

It's difficult to say more without giving key plot points away -- in general, you can expect infidelities, family spats, medical emergencies, falling in love, political actions, and moves to exotic locales. In addition, there are creepy sides to some characters, things you recognize as being not-quite-right, things which manifest themselves in every family, no matter the quality of genes or parental guidance that the children receive.

The Northern Clemency
is worth the days and days (or weeks and weeks) it make take to read it, for various reasons, but ultimately because it is enjoyable to do so.

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