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A-The Northern ClemencyIn 2003, Philip Hensher was named to Granta magazine’s prestigious list of "Best Young British Novelists." His latest novel, The Northern Clemency, was short-listed for Britain’s Man Booker Prize and named Amazon.com’s "Best Book of the Year" for 2008. Hensher’s previous work includes The Mulberry Empire, The Fit, Kitchen Venom, and Pleasured.

The Story: Two middle-class families embodying "reserve and restraint, the usual conditions of an English life" become neighbors in Thatcher-era Sheffield, England, 150 miles outside London. The Glovers’ lives are complicated by a passionless marriage and wife Katherine’s work for a local florist. The Sellers, who move from London so that husband Bernie can begin his duties with the electric company, discover many common bonds with their new acquaintances—children, boring meals, politics, the 1984 miners’ strike, and forays into London and to Sydney, Australia. The novel’s five sections span generations and two decades—and include some surprising developments regarding the couples’ children. Thus, Hensher’s intricate social study becomes complete.
Knopf. 597 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 1400044480

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"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." Ron Charles

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"[The Northern Clemency] is so precisely rendered, one can easily imagine it becoming required reading for set designers everywhere. … [The novel] is big and detailed enough to call Dickensian—except that Dickens tried everything except charades and semaphore to make certain the audience got his message loud and clear." Yvonne Zipp

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"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." Janet Maslin

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"While the book, on its surface, appears to be an old-fashioned novel—symphonic in scale, almost Victorian in its dense detail—it also recalls the experiments of Virginia Woolf (especially The Years) with its multiple leaps in time and shifts in point of view. … That’s how it creates, with sumptuous thoroughness, a whole world." Michael Upchurch

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Hensher provides plenty of action, but he embeds it in the atmosphere and rhythms of quotidian existence. … Readers should not be put off by the novel’s bulk or its slow beginning and leisurely pace; nor should they be disappointed by its ending with a kind of dying fall." Martin Rubin

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Hensher is obviously thoroughly versed in literary history, but he’s writing at a moment—as lovers of literary history know—when a lot of authors choose to keep their influences well-disguised. … Despite all the twists and turns (each beautifully set up and delivered), there are no surprises; this is a book that seems to have been written too many times already." Sophie Gee

St. Petersburg Times 2 of 5 Stars
"Striving to locate the tiny joys and cruelties of family life, Hensher seems unable to see the wood for the trees. There are well-written scenes in a novel that fails to convey anything substantial." Vikram Johri

Critical Summary

Philip Hensher has been compared to Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud, Ian McEwan, and Virginia Woolf, among other respected literary writers, living and dead. No pressure there. For all its grounding in the classics—past and present—Hensher’s latest novel elicits the sort of ambivalence from critics that often accompanies such sprawling tomes (Janet Maslin, for instance, calls the book "overlong, but … relentlessly enveloping"). Most critics agree that Hensher’s skills as a stylist and observer are prodigious and that this is an important book, a reader’s book; still, some bristle at the author’s staid, deliberately paced portrait. Hensher’s star burns quite a bit brighter in London than in the States, but Northern Clemency might be his introduction to a broader audience.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the 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” (page 241).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 235. 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 (pages 244-245)? 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 (pages 524-525). Do you think Alice hears what he's saying? How does this figure into his final scene, on the train (pages 589-590)?

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?

SUGGESTED READING

Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes; Zadie Smith, White Teeth; Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections; Philip Roth, American Pastoral

ABOUT 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.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Random House. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.