I recently finished reading 'The Northern Clemency', by Philip Hensher.
It was a surprisingly gripping novel, considering the subject matter. The story mainly follows the lives of two families and their woven fates over the course of twenty years, with various sub-plots. I was expecting something stereotypically 'gritty' and suitably 'northern' but the book was both moving, suspenseful, tense and also very funny (albeit darkly comic). The characters' personalities were very recognisably human and flawed. The children carried recognisable echoes of aspects of their parents' characters, as the general plot took shape, while others characters were reflected in one another like mirror images. (In some ways I was reminded of D.H Lawrence, notably his novel 'The Rainbow'). There are various themes in Hensher's novel: class aspirations, cultural divide between north and south in England (south represented by 'London'), sexual desire and repressed and frustrated sexuality, hating others for what we dislike in ourselves, the personal interlinking with the political, and the nature, the imprint of an individual's upbringing and childhood, love and deception, self-deception, and the development of personal relationships that are both healthy and unhealthy.
The story is largely set in London and Sheffield during 1974, London and Sheffield in 1983, and London/Sheffield/Australia in 1994. The sections of the novel are split into these key chronological periods in the characters' lives. There is a mirroring and a contrast between the Glover family who are 'Sheffield born and bred' and the Sellars, who move up to Sheffield from London when the head of the family, Bernie Sellars, gets a job with the electrical company there.
(Warning: some 'spoilers' follow)
Katherine is the mother of Daniel, Jane and Timothy Glover; wife to Malcolm. At the start of the novel she and Malcolm have been married for 16 years, and she decides to take a job at a flower shop. This flower shop is run by a man named Nick, who has also moved to Sheffield from London. The novel opens with the party she has thrown at the Glovers' household for her neighbours, but mainly to impress Nick- who she is about to have an affair with. Eventually the family learns the truth when she confesses her feelings to Alice Sellers, and is overheard by her daughter Jane. Katherine breaks off the affair after sleeping once with Nick (it is implied that he is put off by the scars of her childbirth, a reminder to him that she is married with children) and after some time she leaves the shop. Years later, she is almost implicated when the police discover Nick was using the flower job to launder money and as a front for criminal activity- his friend Jimmy in London is a gangster and involved in drug dealing. Nick attempts to implicate Katherine at the trial as he has fallen in love with Jimmy's beautiful daughter Sonia, but he fails. His tears when Jimmy tells her to stay away from her echo Tim Glover's behaviour in front of Sandra Sellers later on in the novel. As for Katherine, her husband Malcolm forgives her adultery and their lives return as far as possible to normality.
Katherine's husband; a solid, reliable and practical man. At her greatest point of emotional stress, when she learns of Nick's deception, she threatens to divorce him but comes to her senses: she comes to appreciate what she has. When Malcolm suspects Katherine's affair, initially he pretends the situation and doesn't exist, and then he runs away from the situation. Aside from his work at a building society, he is fascinated by history and warfare: he takes part in battle re-enactments in his spare time, an interest that his wife does not share with him. His pre-occupation with the past and old conflicts is echoed in the behaviour of his disturbed son Tim, who cannot escape from the emotional conflicts of his childhood. Malcolm's precise, slightly obsessive manner is amplified in Tim Glover, who also inherits the repressed emotional energy of his mother.
Tim Glover is the most complex and disturbing character in the novel. He is the youngest son of Malcolm and Katherine. He experiences the greatest zenith and nadir of any character in the novel: shaking hands with Arthur Scargill at a political rally in 1983 and quoting Karl Marx is the high point of his life; drowning himself in the sea in Australia is his tragic end, after Sandra Sellers rejects his attempts to re-enter her life. Tim becomes an intellectual, interested in left wing radical politics and a noted academic, but he suffers from social inadequacy, an inability to relate to others, repressed anger and repressed sexuality. Many of these characteristics are rooted in events in his childhood. He is seen as strange even as a child, and is even rejected emotionally by his family. Obsessed by snakes as a child, he hides one in the house until his mother Katherine kills the creature in a fit of emotional rage, on the day in 1974 that the Sellers family move from London to Sheffield, and also on the day that Malcolm disappears suspecting her affair. The killing of the snake is an event witnessed by the neighbours. Tim Glover also develops an obsession with the sexually precocious and older Sandra Sellers (close friend of his brother Daniel), after she secretly allows him to grope her when he is just ten. It is his fixation with her that causes him to stalk her twenty years later and follow her to Australia. Tim becomes a left wing radical and takes part in political rallies. In the 1980s he marries Trudy, another radical who is also a feminist and repressed and angry like him- until he leaves her to pursue Sandra. His character is echoed in some ways by Sandra's brother Francis, who loathes him and hardly speaks to him, as Tim obsessively asked a dying schoolfriend what it was like to be ill and facing death when they were children. Francis' saving grace is his healthy relationship with his family, which is unlike Tim's- Tim clashes with his father Malcolm about politics, is teased by his siblings Daniel and Jane, and Tim also secretly hates Daniel, who he is jealous of for his ability to attract women and be close to Sandra, object of Tim's desire. Katherine subconciously dislikes Tim as ever since he was a baby she has seen him as a burden. Tim's role as a burden is echoed by the character John Warner, also a friend of Daniel's. John is a layabout living at home and living off the dole, who relies on Daniel to pay his way for him. Eventually, in 1994 John Warner is still going to nightclubs trying to pick up younger women, and he is shown as a ludicrous and creepy character who the girls at the clubs called 'Granddad'.
At Tim Glover's funeral, it is his brother Daniel who shows the most concern and regret for his passing.
Daniel is the polar opposite of his brother Tim. He is handsome, confident and easy-going, and throughout his adult life until his marriage is a ladies' man. By 1994 he has settled down locally in Sheffield, married Helen and started to run his own business, a restaurant. Despite Daniel's many dalliances with women, and Sandra Sellers' own promiscuous behaviour and short-lived relationships, ironically the two most sexually active characters in the novel become platonic friends, and more like brother and sister. When Sandra Sellers has left the Sheffield area, she still sends Daniel postcards (some of which are stolen by Tim).
A 'plain Jane', she has ambitions to write a novel in childhood and is seen as dreamy and quiet by others, but she ends up moving to London and becoming a hard-nosed business woman. There, she happens to meet Francis Sellers, who lives alone there and is trying to write novels. They reminisce on old times in Sheffield and agree to meet, but she ultimately rejects him as a potential partner. Jane has adapted to London and feels she has moved on from the past, while Francis feels lost in the big city, and wishes he could be back in Sheffield. She realises this, and marries her Australian housemate after one of the novel's darkly comic episodes. The contrast with grey, provincial, city of steel Sheffield and the laidback sunny attitude of the Australian lifestyle is emphasised by this relationship and most starkly by Sandra Sellers' decision to emigrate to Australia and meet Aussie men.
Head of the Sellers family, he is perhaps the most likeable and easy-going of the central characters. He is happily and loyally devoted to his wife Alice. He has a relaxed, wry sense of humour and is popular with friends and colleagues. It is he who moves the Sellers family to Sheffield for the sake of his job with the electric company. A pillar of strength for most of the novel who watches the dramas at the Glover household with wry amusement, he crumbles when Alice suffers a brain haemorrhage, and has to be supported by his son Francis when Sandra refuses to return from Australia to be at Alice's bedside.
Alice is a happily married housewife and partner of Bernie. Katherine Glover confesses her feelings for Nick to her on the very first day that she moves to Sheffield with her family. She is left seriously ill in 1994 when she suffers a brain haemorrhage and slumps into a coma, and this incident profoundly affects the family, and Bernie and Francis in particular.
Like Tim Glover, Francis is another male character who feels alienated and socially inadequate. Unlike Tim, he drops out of university and does not progress academically. He suffers from nerves and anxiety attacks, he is freakishly tall and awkward around people. Like Jane Glover, he moves to London to find work, and coincidentally they meet again. He is a voracious reader and is attempting to become a novelist. He writes very intricate science fiction about completely alien, non-human beings, constructing entire new languages and cultures but struggles to find appreciation for his work. He has no sexual relationships. It is left unclear whether he has no sexual drive or whether he is a repressed homosexual- there are implicit hints that he might be one or the other. At one point, he confesses to his mother while she is in a coma that he is a 'nothing, a cypher'. He has become a reclusive adult with repressed sexuality, but a promise of a happier life seems fulfilled when his outlook changes following his mother's near-fatal illness, and reminder of human mortality.
Sandra is a sexually precocious girl who doesn't quite fit in at school at the start of the novel, and it is also suggested she is an exhibitionist by her behaviour (she flashes the male movers who help the Sellers move their furniture from London to Sheffield, and lets Tim Glover grope her). She becomes close platonic friends with Daniel Glover as they grow up in Sheffield. After her behaviour toward Tim, he develops an obsessive fixation on her with tragic consequences. Attempting to escape her Sheffield past and re-invent herself, she calls herself 'Alexandra' and emigrates to Australia. There she has casual affairs with a succession of men. As a character, she is easily bored and restless in spirit, rejecting the stable background of her family and distancing herself both physically and emotionally from her parents and brother. While Tim Glover unwittingly pushes people away, she deliberately does it. Tim stalks and pursues Sandra to Australia, where upon meeting him again she does not recognise him. Her rejection causes him to reach a crisis and commit suicide after she forces him out of her apartment with a knife and threatens to call the police.
Why the title 'The Northern Clemency'? At one point, a character is described as having a row of books on a shelf with 'Ludlum titles'. The structure of the title 'The Northern Clemency' could almost be the title of a Robert Ludlum novel http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Ludlum, but instead of the suspense, intrigue and action of a spy thriller, Philip Hensher portrays the suspense, intrigue and action of everyday life, the lives of 'ordinary' people. Clemency is defined as the following:
1. A disposition to show mercy, especially toward an offender or enemy.
2. A merciful, kind, or lenient act.
Clemency is an act of forgiveness, a truce- and there are various examples of forgiveness asked for or required throughout the course of the novel.