I must have read a really good book review about Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency at some point, because my wife gave it to me as a gift. When I looked quizzically at this unfamiliar book, she said it was on my Amazon wish list.
So when I opened this book for the first time, I truly had no idea what it was about; a very rare experience for me and the way I read. I so wish I could find that initial review that interested me so much, I want to know what in the world it said, ‘cuz I could find nothing particularly engaging in this novel. Yet, so much of what the promotional comments on the back cover claimed were true.
New Statesman: “A good old-fashioned story about two families, beginning in 1974 and spanning twenty years…Hensher is at his brilliant best in the details.”
The Spectator: “Hensher presents the great drama and inexhaustible wonder of ordinary life…”
The Times: “Hensher is a brilliant anatomist of familial tension and marshals his large cast of characters deftly. He has an impeccable eye for nuances of character and setting.”
It is very clear that the author in question is a skilled writer. He has mastery of the language and is subtle and nuanced, his sentences are clean and relatable. Some of his anecdotes are humorous, and reflect life with perfect clarity.
But now let’s examine the other claims of the reviewers; the New Statesman claims this is a “terrific novel”, the Spectator says it is “a page-turner” and the times says The Northern Clemency is “an engrossing and hugely impressive novel.”
Lies! Gross exaggerations! Hyperbolic salesmanship at its worst!
Well, maybe that is a little harsh. But I found this book to be boring. The characters and story lines that I thought were most interesting were dropped and ignored. I found The Northern Clemency to be a long-winded family melodrama with no cohesive plot. The seeds of intrigue planted early in the pages are not cared for, left to wither and die long before you get to the last pages. Unfortunately, Hensher’s good writing becomes a moot point in his frustratingly uninteresting novel.
*As a side note, it is clearly for an English audience, relying on aspects of modern English history, politics, mining, and daily culture to tell the story. Since I have no knowledge of any of that, it could be that I was just the very wrong audience for this tale.