Synopses & Reviews
The award-winning author of The Mulberry Empire
brings us a sweeping chronicle of ordinary lives profoundly shaped by both the subtleties of everyday experience and the larger forces of history.
In 1974, the Sellers family is transplanted from London to Sheffield in northern England. On the day they move in, the Glover household across the street is in upheaval: convinced that his wife is having an affair, Malcolm Glover has suddenly disappeared. The reverberations of this rupture will echo through the years to come as the connection between the families deepens. But it will be the particular crises of ten-year-old Tim Glover—set off by two seemingly inconsequential but ultimately indelible acts of cruelty—that will erupt, full-blown, two decades later.
These lives unfold against the vividly rendered backdrop of twentieth-century England at the dawn of the Thatcher era: prosperity for some and disenfranchisement for others, which will have a drastic impact on both families.
Expansive and deeply felt, The Northern Clemency shows Philip Hensher to be one of our most masterly chroniclers of modern English life, and a storyteller of virtuosic gifts.
"A finalist for the Man Booker Prize, Hensher's Sheffield-set suburban drama spans 20 years in the lives of two neighboring families: the Sellers and the Glovers. Katherine Glover's husband, Malcolm, assuming Katherine has been cheating on him, disappears the night before the Sellers arrive in Sheffield. Katherine confides her troubles in her new neighbor, Alice Sellers, and Malcolm quickly returns. Alice's daughter, Sandra, meanwhile, forms unlikely relationships with Katherine's two sons: one a friendship and one a doomed unrequited love sparked by a thoughtless act between two children. Epic in scale but more modest in its focus, Hensher presents a trove of insular, often obsessive characters; the narrative's wide-ranging perspective shifts between the minds of not only the Glovers and Sellers but also their neighbors, classmates and assorted others. Margaret Thatcher's impact comes to the fore during the miner's strike of 1984 and the subsequent privatization of the industry, but the novel's focus remains on domestic drama: the unease and desperation of adolescence, and the seemingly unbridgeable distances between parents, children, siblings and spouses." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and chosen as Amazon.com's Best Book of 2008, Northern Clemency is a sweeping, powerfully engaging story of ordinary lives that are profoundly shaped by the larger forces of history. Spanning more than twenty years of recent British history, and following two families whose lives are forever intertwined by the simple chance of geography, this is a novel of great dramatic and emotional depth.
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.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of Philip Hensher's epic, vividly rendered novel The Northern Clemency, which was short-listed for the 2008 Man Booker Prize.
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?