The Northern Clemency

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Digging into the 2010 IMPAC Longlist

The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has unveiled its massive 2010 longlist. Recall that libraries around the world can nominate books for the prize, and these nominations, taken together, comprise the longlist. This year there are 156 novels on the list, nominated by 163 libraries in 43 countries. All of the books must have been published in English in 2008 (including translations).

Because of the award’s global reach and egalitarian process, it’s always interesting to dig deeper into the longlist. Taken as a whole, the literary proclivities of various countries become evident, and a few titles recur again and again, revealing which books have made a global impact on readers.

Overall favorites: books that were nominated by at least six libraries.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (9 libraries representing Belgium, Canada, England, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, and the United States)

A Mercy by Toni Morrison (8 libraries representing Barbados, Lebanon, Portugal, Switzerland, and the United States)

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway (8 libraries representing Belgium, Canada, England, and Finland)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (8 libraries representing Brazil, Canada, France, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, and the United States)

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry (8 libraries representing the Czech Republic, England, Ireland, South Africa, and the United States)

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill (7 libraries representing Austria, Ireland, South Africa, and the United States)

Breath by Tim Winton (6 libraries representing Australia, Germany, New Zealand, and the United States)

Indignation by Philip Roth (6 libraries representing Belgium, Germany, Spain, and the United States)

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon (6 libraries representing Croatia, Greece, Ireland, Italy, and the United States)

The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher (6 libraries representing Australia, England, Greece, New Zealand, and the United States)

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (6 libraries representing the United States)

You can also look at the list and see which books are favorites in different countries. Several books were nominated by multiple libraries in the same country. Here’s a few:

In the Netherlands, The Jewish Messiah by Arnon Grunberg and The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker

In Canada, Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden and The Great Karoo by Fred Stenson

In New Zealand, Novel About My Wife by Emily Perkins

There were also several countries with only one library nominating just one or two books. Here are a few of those:

From Jamaica, The Same Earth by Kei Miller
From Romania, The Outcast by Sadie Jones
From Columbia, The Armies by Evelio Rosero
From Denmark, Machine by Peter Adolphsen
From Iceland, Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indridason

The Millions Top Ten: February 2009

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Time again for another installment of one of our newer features, The Millions Top Ten. Check out last month’s introduction for an explanation of how it works. The new list:ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.-Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences1 month2.1.26662 months3.2.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao2 months4.-Olive Kitteridge1 month5.3.Infinte Jest2 months6.-Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-19631 month7.4.The Dud Avocado2 months8. (tie)5.The White Boy Shuffle2 months8. (tie)6.A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again2 months10.8.The Tales of Beedle the Bard2 monthsDebuting on the list this month in the top spot is Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog, fueled by a huge amount of interest in Garth’s post diagramming one of the president’s sentences. With that post still quite popular, don’t be surprised if this quirky title stays on our list for quite some time.Another debut is Susan Sontag’s Journals and Notebooks. This collection of writing from Sontag’s younger years was highlighted in a recent post by Anne that got some attention.Also new on the list is Elizabeth Strout’s collection Olive Kitteridge, a National Book Critics Circle finalist and a Year in Reading pick from Manil Suri. Those two mentions were quite brief, however, and the recent interest in the book by Millions readers intrigues us. If you’ve read Kitteridge, let us know what you thought of it in the comments.Finally, dropping off the list this month are The Savage Detectives, The Northern Clemency, and Netherland.See Also: Last month’s list

The Millions Top Ten

We’ve added a new feature to The Millions sidebar. We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our inaugural Millions Top Ten list, and we’ll be updating the list in our sidebar each month.ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.-26661 month2.-The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao1 month3.-Infinte Jest1 month4.-The Dud Avocado1 month5.-The White Boy Shuffle1 month6.-A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again1 month7.-The Savage Detectives1 month8.-The Tales of Beedle the Bard1 month9.-The Northern Clemency1 month10.-Netherland1 monthLet us know if you’ve been reading any of these books. We’d love to hear about it.

Missed Connections: A Review of Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency

Halfway through Howards End, E.M. Forster describes a certain elm tree as a living symbol of that elusive quality called Englishness. “It was neither warrior, nor lover, nor god,” Forster writes:In none of these roles do the English excel. It was a comrade, bending over the house, strength and adventure in its roots, but in its utmost fingers tenderness. To compare either house or tree to man, to woman, always dwarfed the vision. Yet they kept within limits of the human. Their message was not of eternity, but of hope on this side of the grave.The British novelist Philip Hensher’s expansive new book, The Northern Clemency, seems at first to be steering by a quite different set of literary lights. Its coal-country setting (Sheffield: “the city that had made fire out of water”) recalls D.H. Lawrence, while a whiff of moorish bleakness harkens back to Hardy. Beneath these provincial trappings, however, Hensher has undertaken project as sophisticated – and, in its essential conservatism, as stealthily radical – as Forster’s. Tracing the lives of two families through a quarter century of recent history, The Northern Clemency aims for nothing less than an old-fashioned anatomy of regional and national character.Hensher’s formidable technical gifts are on full display in the novel’s opening section. The plot alternates between the Glovers, who are hosting a party for their Yorkshire neighbors, and the Sellerses, late of London and soon to take up residence in the house opposite. Meanwhile, at the level of point-of-view, Hensher works a more rapid set of changes. As the party lurches toward its inglorious end, and as the Sellerses drive north, his “free indirect” third person narration flits gracefully among a host of family members and assorted hangers-on.This canny layering of exterior and interior achieves the effect of an architectural cutaway, illuminating both solid surfaces and buried complexities. On one hand, both the Glovers and the Sellerses are typical, even representative, of their time and place. The party is “a good party, like other parties,” where the men talk “about their jobs, their cars, about the election even; the women about their children’s schools, about the cost of living, and about each other.” On the other hand, Katharine Glover and her three children, like both of the young Sellerses, hide secretive inner worlds. Timothy Glover, for example, will spend the entire party concealed behind the couch. And his sister Jane knew all about Mrs. Arbuthnot. Under no circumstances would she tell any of these people that she, Jane, was writing a novel. Already she hated the girl, over the road, fourteen. Hensher’s deep feeling for workaday Northern diction and syntax (“over the road”) subtly underscores the subjectivity of these private moments:”He’ll break some hearts,” someone was saying, in another part of the room. It was Daniel Glover they were talking about. He was sixteen, lounging over the edge of the sofa, his long legs spread… He was thinking about sex, and he counted the women. Then he eliminated the unattractive ones, the ones over thirty-five, his mother and sister, no, he brought his sister back in just for the hell of it. Leitmotifs of flowers and snakes underscore the implication: sex is at the center of our private worlds, and will soon cost these characters their gardens. Or, as a nosy neighbor puts it on the book’s first page, “There’ll be trouble with both of those boys.”The problem with The Northern Clemency is that the promised trouble fails, by and large, to materialize. To be sure, the climax of this first section, and Katharine Glover’s fall from grace in the second, are rich with potential. But the novel is too well-tempered to let its plot complications ramify. Instead, it solves them, and in so doing, clears away the tensions that have sustained the characters’ vivid inner lives.By the time the children reach maturity, the characters, outwardly ordinary, have become inwardly ordinary, too. Only the Glover parents and their son Daniel, the aging Don Juan, retain a spark of life, perhaps because only they properly develop. By contrast, Sonia and Francis Sellers and Jane Glover are so alike in their solitude that the connection between their individual fates and the secret injuries of their childhoods come to seem arbitrary. (Why not Jane in Australia and Sonia in London? one wonders. Why not Francis in advertising and Jane with cats?) Perhaps this arbitrariness is meant to read as philosophical fatalism, but as novelistic practice, it’s merely fatal.As The Northern Clemency enters the Thatcher era, Hensher attempts to rally his fading characters by enlivening the novel’s social dimension. In various ways, the Glover men and the Sellers parents become entangled – or perhaps the more neutral “involved” is the right word – in the labor strikes that will lead to the privatization of the British coal industry.But the novelist’s negative capability should extend to history, and Hensher can’t sustain his. The supporting characters who hover at the periphery of the picket-lines are virtuous or vicious in precise proportion to their support for the unions. Thus Daniel’s girlfriend’s father, a collier who doesn’t hold much truck with organized labor, is salt-of-the-earth, a secret sweetheart, while Daniel’s brother Tim, who has become a teenage activist, collapses into a shrill caricature of the pimply leftist. (His convictions arise from perceived personal slights and inadequacies. Naturally, he will grow up to become an academic.) And at this point, Hensher’s willingness to throw his characters under the ideological bus calls attention to, and starts to undermine, the classicism of his aesthetics. As a clinic on realist technique, The Northern Clemency is impressive – impressive enough, apparently, to earn a spot on the Booker shortlist and a designation as Amazon.com’s best book of 2008 – but is there anything of much urgency here?One may wish to object, in defense of The Northern Clemency, that urgency is not the point. Like Forster, from whom he takes his epigraph, Philip Hensher understands the Englishman not as a warrior or god, but as a creature of moderation, and of limitation. To write a 600-page novel of such a comradely temperament, never straying from “the limits of the human,” is undeniably an accomplishment. Forster did temperate well, too. Still, Howards End never lost sight of its own epigraph – “Only connect…” – and beneath its every meticulous surface a deep ardor still burns. The Northern Clemency, too clement by half, rarely permits such ardor. At the risk of sounding glib, it offers too much prose, and not enough passion.

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