118 of 133 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A clever and engaging slog on ordinary life...
The story is set in Sheffield, an industrial city 200 miles outside of London. It is told over 3 decades (1970's to 90's) and is centered on 2 families who live opposite from each other on same street. Malcolm and Katherine Glover and their family (teenagers Daniel and Jane and 10 year told Tim) were all born and raised in Sheffield and are portrayed as a dysfunctional...
Published on November 11, 2008 by D. Kanigan
16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars asking for clemency
TNC is at once tedious, well-written, keenly observed (think: product placement), and facile. 'Facile' is a harsh judgment, I know, but it's hard to make up in trendy talk and regional angst what's lost in plot and drama. Some of the scenes are brilliant; many of the passages though are page-turners in the wrong sense--one just wants to get past them. Hensher apparently...
Published on March 2, 2009 by j. j. molloy
Most Helpful First | Newest First
118 of 133 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A clever and engaging slog on ordinary life...,
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The story is set in Sheffield, an industrial city 200 miles outside of London. It is told over 3 decades (1970's to 90's) and is centered on 2 families who live opposite from each other on same street. Malcolm and Katherine Glover and their family (teenagers Daniel and Jane and 10 year told Tim) were all born and raised in Sheffield and are portrayed as a dysfunctional family. Malcolm works for a building society, gardens in their backyard in his spare time and partakes in civil war re-enactments. While his wife Katherine decides it's time to get out of the house and take a part time job in a new florist shop - where she eventually falls for the owner. Their oldest son Daniel is handsome and spends his time in pursuit of girls. Jane is bookish and dreams of being an author and writing poetry. While young Timothy has an obsession with Snakes. In contrast, the Sellers' family is comparatively normal and is adjusting to the move to the decaying city of Sheffield from London.
* The story is dense and thick on ordinary life. At 597 pages, this is not a breezy, page turning romp. Henser takes us inside the day-to-day life of each family and the relationship between the two families and their children. The book is dense with details of the daily lives of its characters - and it brings color to what goes on behind closed doors of the daily life of middle and working class Britons - - sharing marital problems - - teenagers going through adolescence - - neighbors trying to keep up to their neighbors - - families pretending everything is ok when reality is something altogether different - - gossip - - brutality of kids in school mistreating new kids and on and on. Normal, regular life - shared colorfully in minute detail and as some reviewers coin Henser's "forensic eye for detail and exactness." Here's an example:
"Bernie was gritting his teeth: he was stuck between lorries, thundering along at a frustrating ten miles an hour below the speed limit, boxed in by faster lines of traffic solidly flowing to the right. He felt like a box on a conveyor belt."
* This book tests your reading muscles. The book is separated into 5 sections with the story jumping around between families and individuals and then jumping forward in time - not fully filling in what happened in the gaps but enough to keep you connected, fully engaged and turning the pages.
* The story is deeply introspective and gets you in the mind of the principal characters. Hensher has piercing insights into his characters and how they get through and cope with the day-to-day struggles of life - you become part of the community and the character's individual lives - the secrets, the misunderstandings, the dramas - and you see that those that should be so close as kin are so far away from truly understanding each other. Here's a passage about Jane on a family trip to the country:
"But Jane's pleasure was being ruined by the noises and silences in the car. Her father's concentration on the road had a different quality of silence to it, compared to Tim's dense, bewildered concentration, or the quiet amusement Daniel was extracting from the situation. She wondered what her owned pained silence sounded like from outside - perhaps very much like sulking."
* The book is beautifully written sparking full spectrum of emotions within the detail of the hum drum lives - laughter, sadness, distress, frustration - among hundreds and hundreds of minute details - an insider's diary of people's lives jumping from one character to the next. The author's brilliance keeps you slogging through this slow moving muddy river chugging along at 15-20 pages at a crack then setting it down - taking a full 2 weeks to finish.
The book closes with Daniel (now an adult) speaking to his wife -
"What time is it?" Daniel said, then looked at his watch. "My God, I've been sitting here for three hours."
"Did you drop off?" Helen (his wife) said.
"Don't tell me off, I've got nothing much to do today anyway, said Daniel."
"What are you reading?" Helen said coming over. "What's it about?"
"Oh, I don't know," Daniel said. "It's sort of about people like us, I think."
Yes, I too have been sitting for hours (and hours and hours) slowly turning the pages and reading a book about people just like us.
I enjoyed the book. Put your hip-waders on and take a plunge through this clever, warm, amusing, every-day life swamp.
53 of 59 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ordinary life made extraordinary,
Don't let some of the words used to describe "The Northern Clemency," words like "epic," "rambling," or "stream of consciousness," discourage you from taking up this wonderful novel. It is none of these things. Certainly it is the complicated and intricate story of two English families, a story that is set mostly, but not entirely, in Sheffield, and extends from the Thatcher years to a time not far from the present. The members of the two families, the Sellerses and the Glovers, total nine characters, each of whom is gradually but fully developed, so the novel does, at first, feel like a Russian novel, except that there is no handy list of characters inside the front cover for consultation.
So it's best to read this book when you have a little time, and slowly you'll be drawn in, until you can't put the book down. The novel does not ramble. It is intricately plotted, and even when it ranges as far abroad as Australia, its events seem natural and inevitable. As for "stream of consciousness," no, no, no. "Ulysses" it isn't---except in the sense that the writing is wonderful. In some ways, it will remind you of a John Updike novel in its evocation of the humble quotidian beauty of life in a suburb where people eat Coronation Chicken and fish pie, shop for groceries at the Gateway, and buy their children's school uniforms at Cole's. What's unusual about this novel is its sense of mystery. The two couples at the center of the novel, Katherine and Malcolm Glover and Alice and Bernie Sellers, have marriages that are complicated but somehow familiar in their arguments, joys, and disappointments. But who can account for the ways in which children spin away from their parents in ways unpredictable and strange? How do parents produce children whose only links to each other seem to be their last names and their DNA? It happens all the time, of course. With the phrase "So the garden" the ending of the novel circles back to its beginning. When I finished reading, I turned back to the opening pages, and in looking at the names of the characters, whose fate I now knew, I realized that I would read this book all over again.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A phenomenal novel,
A fascinating and absolutely rivetting novel.
I finished The Northern Clemency 4 weeks ago and have been letting it sink in. It is a wonderfully resonant novel, and the people and places still live within my head. It is, for want of a better word, a 'family saga', following the lives of two Sheffield families from the 1970s to today but it is also much more than that. It creates an entire world with a 'cast of dozens', with some marvellous cameo chapters devoted to secondary figures who make the world come alive. It is terribly emotionally involving; it made me weep twice, and this is _because_ of its sparse language that allows the reader to fill in the gaps. The book threw me in and tumbled me about, lulled me into complacency and then hurled something unexpected at me.
I loved the way we weave in and out of different people's consciousnesses, and i never quite knew where I was going to end up.
The prose in this novel is to die for. Some favourite images include the phrase ' She looked at him, sharpening a pencil in her head' and, 'He danced, moving from one foot to the other and making vague clay-shaping motions with his hands.' I hope this gives you a tiny idea of the wonderfully assured mastery of this author. I knew I was in good hands from page 1, and I wasn't let down.
I loved the build-up and the way people get mentioned on p.2 and then disappear from view until they unexpectedly reappear on p.64 in new, delightful combinations. I was entranced by the insight that suspense and surprise needn't come from the story itself but can come entirely from the plot, that is, from the way the story is presented. Unexpected revelations sneak up on you and give you delicious shivers of recognition.
I absolutely loved it. I only wish there were additional amazon stars to mete out because this deserves 7 of them. It is truly outstanding.
One of the best novels I have read ever. And I don't say this lightly. (I read a lot, and mostly so-called 'literary fiction'. To give you an idea of my taste: I love Jane Austen, Vikram Seth's 'A Suitable Boy', Italo Calvino and David Mitchell.)
34 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Less gormless than it seems,
"The Northern Clemency" by Philip Hensher is an oddity, that's for sure. Following the doings (or, more accurately, non-doings) of a couple of families living in the suburbs of the Northern England (former) steel-making city of Sheffield, from the early 1970s into the 1990s, it is presented almost as a stream of consciousness, hopping from person to person or family to family as it follows its own particular narrative threads from scene to scene. It is hard to really grasp just who (or what) is meant to be at the centre of this epic rambling tale. Perhaps it's not the characters, or the places themselves, so much as the periods, especially the mid 70s and also the Maggie Thatcher years (especially the period of the Miners' Strike) which are quite effectively evoked, although sometimes a little out in the fine details.
The book is organised as just five chapters (or four and a half, if you take the author's numbering literally) which together span a massive 700-odd pages of narrative, with the action largely centred in Sheffield but also spilling out into London and, in the later pages, Sydney, Australia. Although born in London, Hensher himself spent his school and adolescent years in Sheffield at about the time portrayed in the first part of this book and it is easy to believe that some of this may indeed be semi-autobiographical. If so, one cannot help feeling that the author's memory is rather less than perfect, though, and also that the story is influenced as much by literary expedience as it is by actual experience. Parts of the tale are, if not wholly surreal, then nevertheless somewhat dream-like and much of it left me feeling very unsettled indeed. And while I recognised some aspects of the places and times in which I also grew up, there are also large chunks which are entirely unfamiliar to me and which I simply do not recognise at all. Or else are simply too stereotyped to be believable as anything other than cyphers.
Ultimately, I suspect, the book is about nothing so much as the ordinariness of everyday people (pointed up through the unstated but implicit observation that even "ordinary" people can have something quite extra-ordinary about them if only one looks carefully enough). And although nothing much really happens in this book (and some of the happenings are left frustratingly unresolved, or else simply fizzle out in unexpected and disappointing ways) it is easy to be drawn in and to be drawn along with the flow, simply to experience that flow, rather than out of any great desire to carried somewhere in particular.
Which, I suppose, makes it a lot like life itself.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Let Hensher's slow magic work on you,
Critically acclaimed and Booker-shortlisted "The Northern Clemency (NC)"'s low average three star rating reflects the polarized reaction of readers, with many professing a rather strong loathing for it due to its extraordinary length and slow paced narrative, using words like "slog" to describe their reading experience. So I was mentally prepared for the challenge. I tackled it in four leisurely sessions and happily, far from feeling "this is like watching paint dry", I found NC a very satisfying read indeed.
You follow the quietly dysfunctional and muddled lives of two families - the long resident Glovers and the recently arrived Sellers - living opposite each other in Sheffield over the span of few decades which saw the transformation of industrial relations within the mining community. While nothing truly dramatic happens to any of them, we become privy to seemingly minor revelations with darker deeper seated origins and watch how they shape the undercurrents that alter the lives of ageing parents and maturing adults along the way. The reason Philip Hensher succeeds (while other lesser writers might fail) in this commercially risky venture lies in his supreme confidence in telling about ordinary lives, making us watch their daily personal struggles and over the time he takes to tell his story come to identify with, even empathize with if not like some of these not very likeable people. That's quite an achievement. He also gives us a community of memorable minor characters like the small town nosey gossip or the pregnant nurse, which gives context and roundedness to the existence of these people. The woven tapestry has many characters embedded in its fabric but each of them - even those who appear, disappear, then reappear after decades - is an essential and integral part of the whole.
By the time we get to the end of the story, members of the Glover and Sellers households would have gone their separate ways but like the plump death defying fish in the secret pond at the back of the woods, you sense that their belonging to the community is timeless and that they will have their own personal histories written wordlessly forever in the annals of the town they call home.
NC is serious fiction. It isn't remotely difficult or pretentious but will be a challenging read for those without the time or the patience to allow Hensher's slow magic to work on them. Not for everybody perhaps but I enjoyed it very much.
16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars asking for clemency,
TNC is at once tedious, well-written, keenly observed (think: product placement), and facile. 'Facile' is a harsh judgment, I know, but it's hard to make up in trendy talk and regional angst what's lost in plot and drama. Some of the scenes are brilliant; many of the passages though are page-turners in the wrong sense--one just wants to get past them. Hensher apparently believes--along with many other contemporary novelists--that it's possible to write about the lives of banal and often unlikable characters in a way that creates suspense (maybe an outdated term) because the reader cares about what happens to them. But by definition readers don't care about what happens to banal and unlikable characters.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written; but some clemency please!,
Short list for the Booker Prize. The Brits can write for sure. From 1974 for 20 years Mr. Hensher's novel gives us every small, glistening detail of the lives of two families: physical, emotional, spiritual. The novel is woven expertly- facts doled out in artful story and back story if perhaps too slowly for taste and couched perhaps too densely, expecially for the American reader who likes things to happen quickly and neatly. You have to admit it's got the very feel of the Moors, a sometimes tedious beauty. I confess I skimmed some long paragraphs to get back to the story at hand. But read this book. It's good- really very good.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fine book, if you take the time,
Sometimes you start reading a long book, and you hesitate about committing to it, the way you might hesitate about committing to, say, a TV series that may or may not be cancelled, or to a long movie. And at first, you don't want to commit to spending the next week or two reading this book; you wonder if it will be worth your while, if it will be better than the other books you might be reading instead. Then, sometimes, you get to a point when, all of a sudden, it makes sense, and the question of commitment is far from your mind.
That's what happened with me and Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency, a 700-odd page novel about people living in Sheffield, England (and London, and Australia). It's a strange book that is as slow as treacle, but as cloying as French toast with maple syrup. While it's a book about average, everyday people, there's something about these people that made me want to read on. At first, they seemed boring, but there was a moment when it suddenly started working.
You first meet the members of two families, one that has lived in Sheffield all its life, and another that moves there from London. The parents are average or odd, the children like so many other children, with their foibles and strange attitudes and interests. But the children grow up, and you see them change over three time periods (the book is set first in the 70s, then the 80s, then the 90s). The parents age, deal with their difficulties, and get old. And somehow, out of all this, you feel deeply in touch with these characters, as different as they all are. Like any family, they have their quirks, but Hensher makes them so real that I couldn't stop reading about them. Nothing spectacular happens to them, but nothing spectacular has happened to me in my life either.
This book is very sensitive and moving, dealing with the problems of real people over time. It has some weaknesses - notably, some characters that get sort of left behind at the end - but it is a poignant story. It is a novel for the common person: the one who dreams and hopes, who struggles and suffers, the one who has a few moments of joy in a life of swimming upstream. It's not for everyone; you need to commit to a long book, but if you make the journey, you'll come out a better person.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Filled With Verisimilitude That Informs and Illuminates Our Own Lives,
This review is from: The Northern Clemency (Paperback)
It is beyond me why other amateur reviewers fill up space outlining the "plot" or "story line," which, after all, is easily accessible on this very page, courtesy of Amazon.
While The Northern Clemency is 700+ pages, it isn't "long." I'm not exactly sure what such an adjective means with respect to a book. Is that how we judge them? By the number of pages each comprises? I think not. So long as the writer is not filling up space with unessential and adventitious blather, a book is--simply--what it is. If 700 pages is beyond the capacity of the "reading muscles" (as one of the above reviews puts it) of the reader more's the pity, because that reader, in his/her limited universe, will be choosing books based on their length rather than on their content.
What Hensher has done is to create and animate two fictional families to such a manifest extent that we can recognize parts of ourselves in at least some of his characters. I disagree that these are "dysfunctional" families as one reviewer suggests. Indeed, I have no clue about what a "dysfunctional" family is unless someone can present an agreed upon definition of "functional" family. What I mean to say is that all families have their so-called dysfunctional aspects but that they are only so-called. Human beings themselves aren't perfect, aren't fully "functional." How can combining several human beings into a family unit produce, thereby, a "functional" family?
The Glovers and the Sellers, the families in The Northern Clemency, then, are as "dysfunctional" or as "functional" as my family or your family. It is certainly true that our individual family members may not exhibit the same characteristics or have the same experiences, dramatic or quotidian, that Hensher's families do, but Hensher's great achievement is to show that his characters' lives are grounded in our discernible, common humanity. Like all good novelists, he makes accessible to his readers lives that they have not, themselves, led. Hensher's families cohere in their own way, they interact in their own way, and they resonate with the reader.
This is an absorbing and haunting novel.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Only half way through... And I keep thinking of Zadie Smith's "On Beauty",
Maybe I'll change my mind. I had no computer access today and I love to read. Because of the hype, I chose to read this book all day long. The opening quote (of sorts) is from E.M. Foster, which is why I immediately thought of "On Beauty" which I found to be a great, memorable read.
What Smith did was to give us the interior lives so vivid that when she moves into omnicient narrator mode, it's thrilling as we have become these characters.
By contrast, Hensher, called the best book of 2008, is so far all about surfaces and none (except the snake incident) is moving or, to me, interesting. I will write another review once I'm done. I am going to finish this novel and not skip around because if so many 'experts" think it is unusually great, I surely maybe missing something or maybe that 'something' comes later.
But for now I have to say, I do not get it. I find almost none of the characters thus far riveting and most aren't even interesting. I do not know this area of England so I have no reference points. And it's awfully slow. I do think Zadie Smith's book did a similar story, at least superficially, with the lives of two families. But aside from that fact, I find too little interior and so far the only character i care about is: Tim, and the horrid way his mother stepped on and so killed his snake. Maybe you have to be savvy about England or Sheffield to get this or perhpas it will deliver surprises and move me as it so far has not.
I concur very much with the letter writer who asked, who do you have to know to get this book 'best of 2008'. Not bragging here, since I'm just another bozo on the bus, but I'm a careful and good reader and read a lot. Boy, so far do not get this book, nor its voices, nor the structure, nor the abundance of names. Shame.
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The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher (Paperback - February 9, 2010)