The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher (2008) Fourth Estate (2008) 738 pp
I must again start a review with a disclosure (this one very unsettling): I did not finish reading The Northern Clemency. In truth, given the size of the book (700+ pages), I barely started.
How, then, can I write a review? Don’t worry; I’m not going to try too hard. I know it’s probably enough to say I started this book and didn’t finish it, but that’s unfair to Hensher. I simply was not in the mood for an overly long social piece that, to me, was written with a great eye for detail but with no sound in the words and no rythm in the sentences. And it didn’t help that I was predisposed to dislike the book. The book had a pretty steep slope to climb in order to convince me it was better than I was expecting. It seemed like a waste of time for me to subject the book to this. While I don’t plan on posting reviews on too many books I haven’t finished, this book ends my 2008 Booker marathon so I thought I should give my reasons for quitting. After my thoughts on the book, I have posted my final thoughts on the longlist.
I’m not going to dwell on the plot here because you can get as much as and more than I know from the book’s blurb. Needless to say, I didn’t get to the apparently good scene with the photos or to the frustratingly inaccurate trial scene. I got far enough to meet some of the main characters, and while it was not torture, I was not attracted to anything in the novel either.
This might be a “you had to be there” kind of book. Hensher’s puts in a lot of detail about setting — decor of the apartments, what’s to eat, what are people talking about — which, in my mind, is meant to make readers think I remember that from the 1970s! That is not a bad thing, but it didn’t really work for me, so any charming nostalgia was completely lost. Basically, then, I started reading the book, started finding excuses to put it down because I was not compelled by the characters or by the plot. This plus the strong desire to be done with the longlist pushed me over the edge. I’m not comfortable in this territory, and I don’t plan to make this a habit, but it sure felt good!
Bottom line: When I put this book down I felt an immediate, strong sense of release. It was like getting out of a bad relationship. Only this relationship was doubly bad and the sense of release from it doubly good because it was not a simply relationship with only this one book but with the disappointing 2008 Man Booker Prize longlist.
Final thoughts on the 2008 Man Booker Prize longlist:
Here’s how I would rank the books I read (and I’ll throw in The Northern Clemency too – 1/4 read).
2. The Clothes on Their Back
3. A Fraction of the Whole
4. Sea of Poppies
5. From A to X
6. The Secret Scripture
7. The Lost Dog
8. The White Tiger
9. A Case of Exploding Mangoes
10. The Encantress of Florence
11. The Northern Clemency
12. Child 44
Though I’ve complained a lot about the longlist, I did enjoy on some higher level the top seven books on my list. The top six would in my mind make a decent shortlist, but it’s not strong by any means. I didn’t think last year’s shortlist was that strong either. I enjoyed the books in 2007, too, but found none of them in the same class as, say, 2004 or 2005. In fact, almost every book shortlisted those two years was better to me than any book shortlisted last year or longlisted this year. I hope things change soon. I love the Booker Prize because it has introduced me to some of my best relationships with books. But my love is not unconditional.
I find it particularly interesting to compare this list with my initial reviews. The Lost Dog has turned out to sit better with me than I thought — kind of like John Banville’s The Sea — moving it close to my own shortlist. Also interesting is that the first books I read are mostly at the bottom of my rankings despite my giving some of them fairly positive reviews. And Sea of Poppies is toward the top despite a so-so review. I can tell how as the longlist reading project went on, as I went through one sub-mediocre book after another, it really affected my whole attitude toward the book I was reading at that moment. I wonder how it would have turned out had I read it in any other order. Had I started the whole shin-dig with The Northern Clemency, for example, I at least would have finished that book and probably would have given it a better review just because I was still fresh in my excitement for the project. Then again, I think my ultimate rankings would probably have been about like this.