Reading this book gave rise to mixed feelings of fascination and wearisomeness. The Northern Clemency is part history, part sociology and totally compelling—but too long--read. The story is sprawling, detailed and ambitious in scope and design. Hensher’s superbly nuanced and detailed writing makes the relative mundanity of these family’s lives almost compulsively readable. The book was so compelling that it kept me listening* even though I kept thinking to myself, “Gaaawd, I can’t stand all this excruciating detail!” It’s just too long and has more extraneous detail than I wanted to know.
(*I listened to the audio format of the book)
This book is much the same as life for most of us, ordinary and boring. That doesn't mean life isn't worth living. And it also doesn't mean that this book isn't worth reading. If you like sprawling literary evocations of familial drama, then this book is for you. After getting half way through the book I began to care a bit about the characters and wanted to know where life took them. I kept thinking, surely a book this long must have something worthwhile in the plot somewhere. In the end the story was pretty much like real life--some things are resolved, some are not; some things are better, some are not; there is a death, but life goes on for others.
This book comes about as close as possible to providing the experience of living 20 years without actually using up 20 years of time to do so. I guess a another way of saying this is, reading this book seems like it takes 20 years, but actually it only takes 20 hours to read.
Defenders of the book have suggested that it was inspired by “the great nineteenth-century Russian novels.” On the other hand, critics say they see more influence from Desperate Housewives than from Tolstoy. I think they're both right. Hensher has given us a 21st Century update to the great 19th Century novels. If we don't like it, it may be an indication of how we feel about 21st Century literary styles.
Frankly, I am intrigued with the comparison of this book with War and Peace. Just as War and Peace follows life on two different Russian estates within the context of the Napoleonic war, The Northern Clemency follows the members of two neighboring families during the anti-union and pro-privatization economic policies of the Thatcher government. And of course, they are both very long stories filled with much detail. However, I suspect that War and Peace will still be a classic one hundred years from now, and The Northern Clemency will be forgotten.
This book can be classed as a historical novel because it deals with the economic and political changes in the 70’s and 80’s in northern England. The second half of the book in particular addresses politics and policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (i.e. privatization of public services and coal miners' strike). But in the end the surrounding politics is a pale backdrop for the lives of the fictional characters. Besides, the 70’s and 80’s aren’t so far in the past to be called historical. So I’ve classed the book as being just a novel.