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!

I recommend getting your reviews of this book from two other sites. The Asylum, by John Self, didn’t like it in his review; dovegreyreader did in hers. And both of them read it.

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).

1.  Netherland

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.

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By |2017-09-25T18:16:30-04:00September 4th, 2008|Categories: Book Reviews, Philip Hensher|Tags: , , , |23 Comments


  1. KevinfromCanada September 4, 2008 at 1:55 am

    I did finish this book but only because I am stubborn. For anyone who thinks they might be interested in it, I think Trevor’s reference to dovegreyreader’s review is the fairest thing to do — as she says in a post in comments elsewhere on this site, maybe you had to be there to appreciate this book. I wasn’t there and I didn’t — for those who were, perhaps it has some value. For me, that means it has no place on the longlist.

    Don’t give up on the longlist either, Trevor. As you note in your own ranking, the top half of the list definitely has value — if nobody is trying to read the whole thing, we’ll get even weirder lists in the future.

    And now that you are done it, what are you reading next? How can we loyal commentors keep up if we have to wait until after you’ve finished a book instead of being ready when the review appears?


  2. Trevor Berrett September 4, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    I won’t give up entirely on the longlist. I’ve been a fan of the Booker for too long, so I’m sure by the time the longlist rolls around next year I’ll be anxious to see what it brings.

    Now that I’m done, the possibilities seem endless! I’m just now finishing Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (I’m a bit late with Roth, but his work has been the best reading discovery I’ve made this year). I’ve also got some Richard Yates, Richard Hughes, Stefan Zweig, Graham Greene, and Raymond Chandler on my shelf, but I never know what book I’ll pick up next until I’m ready to pick one up. I suspect the next book will be Richard Hughes In Hazard since I bought it most recently.

    I’m also looking at the books you’ve recommended to me, so don’t be surprised to see one of them pop in now and then in the near future!

  3. KevinfromCanada September 4, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    Directional descriptions of future reading are just fine, Trevor — I think the Booker experience does show that making definite promises might not be a good idea. I will pull out American Pastoral and prepare myself in case you do decide to post — I remember not liking it as much as most reviewers did (but that’s about all) and look forward to a possible post. And, selfishly, I would welcome thoughts on Richard Hughes — I have heard of him and that’s all.

    Happy reading.

  4. Stewart September 4, 2008 at 7:50 pm

    Now that I’m done, the possibilities seem endless!

    Don’t they just. Due to work and family swellings, I’ve not been able to write about any of the books I’ve read this last week and a bit, but hope to be doing so very soon. I get into that horrid cycle of will I read/will I blog? and end up doing neither.

    On the subject of The Northern Clemency, I’ve just picked it up. Not to read, but I was wondering if I could read it Dickens-style – you know, a chapter a day. But I see it’s only got five chapters. 738 pages and only five chapters! So that’ll be a no then. The last time I tackled a book that size with minimal chapters was Irving’s A Prayer For Owen Meany which took me four weeks!

  5. KevinfromCanada September 4, 2008 at 8:03 pm

    Stewart: The comparison with A Prayer for Owen Meany is definitely appropriate — with the exception that in the final analysis that exercise proved (at least for me) to be okay (but only okay). This one, unless you were growing up in the Midlands in the Mid-70s, is definitely not worth the 40 nights it would take (please note the not-so-subtle Rushdie reference).

  6. Trevor Berrett September 4, 2008 at 9:26 pm

    Family swellings, Stewart? I think perhaps congratulations are in order! Correct me if I’m wrong. My wife and I had our second son on July 19, so I’m still feeling the stretch – but such a lovely stretch!

    I was not a fan of A Prayer for Owen Meany or really much of anything by Irving. I’m probably giving him short shrift here, but I’d put him on the border between what is literature and what is pulp. I’m sure it’s just a taste thing, and to me he doesn’t taste that good.

  7. KevinfromCanada September 4, 2008 at 9:59 pm

    I do love book debates, but there is no way I will get sucked into “how good is John Irving?” Further opinions, designed to weaken my resolve, are of course welcome.

  8. Trevor Berrett September 4, 2008 at 11:42 pm

    To be fair, the last time I tried Irving was more than a decade ago when I was an undergrad. Not that my taste wasn’t impeccable back then ;)

    I wonder if I’d like him now that I’m at a very different point in my life. I’m willing to give it another shot if someone can convince me. Otherwise, I’ve got plenty to read!

  9. Stewart September 5, 2008 at 12:06 am

    Family swellings, Stewart? I think perhaps congratulations are in order! Correct me if I’m wrong.

    Only an uncle.

    As regards A Prayer For Owen Meany, I loved it at the time but was never compelled to go out an read another Irving. The one thing I remember, on reading it, was my interpretation of Owen Meany as some sort of inverted Marilyn Monrow figure, given the similarities between her men’s careers and the career paths that Meany follows – baseball, theatre, politics.

  10. KevinfromCanada September 5, 2008 at 12:11 am

    I did read Until I Find You and quite enjoyed it, but don’t take that as a recommendation. Much of it (including both the private girls’ and boys’ schools) was set in the neighborhood in Toronto where we were living then and Irving (who also lived in the neighborhood for six months each year) got that dead right. As I said, not a recommendation. Irving’s fun to read but you don’t miss much if you don’t.

  11. Isabel September 5, 2008 at 3:42 pm

    Good try!

  12. John Self September 6, 2008 at 10:39 pm

    Trevor, congratulations on your recent addition! But what really impresses me is that with a new baby less than two months ago, you’ve kept up such a speedy reading schedule! I bow in respect (and in hope that, in due course, I might manage the same).

    As for Irving, I speculate that he might be the opposite of an acquired taste. A writer we grow out of? A decade or so ago I would have listed him among my favourite novelists. Now I haven’t read his last two books and don’t intend to read any more – but would still rate A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules and consider reading them again at some point. That rereading would be clouded by concern, though, that they wouldn’t stand up. Better to leave the happy memories undisturbed?

  13. Trevor Berrett September 7, 2008 at 12:18 am

    Thanks for the congratulations, John! It definitely has not been easy to find time to read and write about what I read with a new addition. We also have a son who is almost two – it’s amazing how it feels rather like we have four children rather than two. The good news is that I have a wife who likes to read too, so we enjoy time together reading when the kids are in bed. I also have the benefit of a long commute – the real key. That and taking a book with me wherever I go in case I get a chance to read a sentence or two.

    Believe me, though, I’m not as off-putting as I might sound!

  14. KevinfromCanada September 8, 2008 at 3:55 am

    Trevor, you are anyting but off-putting. And I stand in awe of your commitment to reading given everything else that is in your life.

    And John, I don’t think we grew out of Irving — I think he stopped writing good books. He used to be my wife’s favorite novelist and she gave up on him about five novels ago. I share your trepidation about revisiting him — there seems to be some risk in destroying what are fond memories. I do find it interesting that his early short minor novels (the ones I call the wrestling novels) are higher up the chapters-indigo list for him that his more recent books.

  15. Trevor Berrett September 8, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    Kevin, I wonder if that is why I’m not a fan of Irving. The first book I read of his was A Widow for One Year and after half-way, I put it down never to look at it again. I tried some other Irving since, going back to some of the earlier novels, but I went in with the presumption that I would not like them either. That’s been a while ago, though, so maybe I’ll give those earlier novels another shot. I think I can separate my feelings for A Widow for One Year because I can’t even really remember it.

  16. KevinfromCanada September 8, 2008 at 6:05 pm

    For me, the decline started two books earlier with Piggy Sneed. Nothing since Owen Meany has been worthwhile.

  17. John Self September 9, 2008 at 1:59 pm

    A Widow for One Year was the first Irving I really disliked, and the reason I haven’t read his two novels since (The Fourth Hand and Until I Find You). Piggy Sneed I didn’t really count, as it was just a collection of occasional pieces to fill the gap between novels (like The Imaginary Girlfriend and My Movie Business), but yes, it was weak too.

  18. KevinfromCanada September 9, 2008 at 3:20 pm

    And now the big question, Trevor. Since the book has now been shortlisted, do you feel you have to finish it? The world awaits your decision.

  19. KevinfromCanada September 9, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    I also have a Northern Clemency strategy for Canada, which you might want to follow in the U.S.. The best local independent seller here likes to have a Booker finalist display — and Northern Clemency does not get published until April 2009 in Canada (Feb. 2009 in the U.S. according to Amazon). I mistakenly ordered two copies and I will be taking both in to see if I can arrange a trade for some of the Giller longlist titles that I won’t have bought. And, of course, endear myself with the independent bookseller. You might want to consider a similiar strategy to recoup your investment in this book.

  20. Trevor Berrett September 9, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    You know, I probably should finish it now just to have the whole shortlist read, but I’m not going to get to it any time soon. Just don’t want to read it. I probably will try to trade it in for something else and see if I ever have cause to read it in the future. If it wins . . .

  21. Bloggers take on the Booker longlist September 14, 2008 at 11:37 am

    […] The Mookse and the Gripes (sort of…) […]

  22. Mel Vogel January 5, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    Am I the only person who’s read The Northern Clemency?

    I finished it (yes, it’s 738 pages long) just earlier today, with the feeling I’d finished putting the top stone in place on one of Pharoah’s pyramids or some other monumental task.

    All kidding aside, in fact, I did enjoy it– by the middle of the book, I found myself enjoying following the exploits, dramas and traumas of the members of the two middle class families Hensher so diligently and painstakingly portrays, both families representative, in a middle-class way of northern England from the period of the 1970s through the 1990s.

    Yes, as (professional) reviewers of the book have pointed out, nothing too eventful happens, but yet, as time passes, you become quite comfortable with the characters, evening caring for them (well, some of them, at least), a measure, to my way of thinking, of how successful the author has been in fleshing out his book.

    I’d even go so far to say I’d rate The Northern Clemency higher than #11 on the 2008 Booker long list.

    To see other reviews, you may want to Google in the name of the novel on The New York Times Web site. The book was reviewed there twice, I believe, once in a weekday edition and another time in the Sunday Book Review section.


  23. Trevor Berrett January 6, 2009 at 2:28 am

    I know that KevinfromCanada, John Self, and dovegreyreader all read it. Only dovegreyreader liked it, though, so that’s one of the reasons I quit. I have to be honest, it wasn’t fully Hensher’s fault. I saved this book for last of the longlist, and I was simply burnt out. I had no desire to be reading from that selection of books any longer, and that particular one was a very long one to have in my way.

    I am glad you liked it, Mel. It’s gotten some good and bad reviews. I know that Amazon picked it as a best book of the year, and the NY Times seemed to enjoy aspects of it. Perhaps had I not attempted it when I did I would have liked it too. But it will be a while before I try it again, if I ever do.

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