The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher - review by Paul Binding

Paul Binding

So the Garden…

The Northern Clemency


Fourth Estate 738pp £17.99

On the penultimate page of this long, ambitious novel, one of its principal characters, Daniel Glover, surprises himself by sitting down with a book and surrendering to it for three hours. It is one of a job lot he has bought as furnishings for his restaurant-cum-dance-school; he’s not usually a reader. When asked by his partner what the book is about, he says, ‘it’s sort of about people like us, I think’, and shows her its first page, which begins, ‘So the garden…’. He is right, for these are the opening words of the very book we have ourselves been reading, spanning twenty years, 1974–94, and tracing the evolution within that period of Daniel himself, his family, neighbours, friends and acquaintances. Not that Daniel is its central consciousness; the novel, which champions pluralist democracy, is itself democratic in its apportioning of authorial attention. Now one person receives it, now another; then out of its hinterland appears somebody whose importance we have yet to appreciate. Unobtrusively a pattern emerges from which no individual can be subtracted.

The garden is that of the initially empty 84 Rayfield Avenue, a modestly priced private estate in Sheffield. In the summer of 1974 two children from the house opposite frequent it: sixteen-year-old Daniel, who takes girls into it, preferably after dark; and his younger sister, Jane, who finds its lilies

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