Originally published on A Walk Through Books on 02/01/09
In a nod to the nineteenth-century narrative tradition that it seems to have been plucked from, Hensher’s latest novel can be dubbed both a tale of two cities and, for this reader at least, a tale of two books.
A book laden with dust-jacket claims heavy enough to sink a battleship - a “condition-of-England” novel, a “condition-of-humanity” novel, “reminiscent of the great nineteenth-century Russian novels” - it bored with kitchen-sink details for 300 pages before setting off on an engrossing ride through 20 years of English history. Politically centred about the 80s miners’ strike in Sheffield, it also examines the bloating of the middle-classes and the death of 70s-born radicalism.
It’s also a book rooted heavily in the everyday, as Hensher dissects the progression of familial relationships as children grow into adults and parents seep into old age, and he does so expertly. The dialogue is never anything other than thoroughly readable and painstakingly believable, and this is something that Hensher clearly prided himself on in his writing of the novel, having said in an interview with Safraz Manzoor for a Guardian Podcast: “I always find it absolutely incredible when I read most novels set in the 1970s that people pay so little attention to the way people expressed themselves.”
And although the first 300 pages tire somewhat with their seeming lack of direction, the following 450 pages provide a justification for the author’s whopping introduction. It is the first 300 pages that set up the minor tensions that Hensher manipulates and exploits in a way that make the second-half’s revelations so engrossing and, more importantly, convincing.
I’ve already mentioned the kitchen-sink, and Hensher draws heavily on spirit of the kitchen-sink dramas of Ken Loach in weighing out the balance of the political and the personal in this extremely weighty tome.
In the same interview with Manzoor mentioned earlier, Hensher refuted Manzoor’s observation that “some people have said that there isn’t enough politics in [the book]” by saying “I think it’s constantly political.” And it is in the way that the north-south divide is political, in the way that the change of polytechnics into universities was political, in the way that having an affair with your boss or turning an old warehouse into a restaurant is political, in the way that, really, everything is political if you want it to be.
The novel encapsulates all of the aforementioned events, and it is really more of a politically-subtle piece than anything, as Hensher is well-aware:
“My starting point was to evoke the domestic texture of life…to focus on small events…the miniature features of people’s lives, and to extrapolate a sort of political implication from those.”
And this is where a large part of the book’s charm lies. Who would want to read a 750 page novel of overt political soap-boxing? And how would it be a novel if this is what it did?
What we have here is a novel that takes in and spits out the prominent political issues of the final 30 years of the 20th century, not a political textbook. And thank God for that, because if we had a textbook instead we’d be robbed of one of the memorable novels of the first ten years of the 21st century.