Book review: The Friendly Ones, by Philip Hensher

There is a Victorian amplitude to Philip Hensher's tenth novel, though, happily, it's not in any way a pastiche or what is loosely called Dickensian. Actually, if Hensher recalls any Victorian novelist, it's Thackeray, not Dickens. He deals in life as it is, without melodrama, but not without horrors. It is the story of two families, neighbours in Sheffield by chance in the way people become neighbours. The novel opens with a party given by Sharif and Nazia, immigrants from what is by the Seventies, Bangladesh; Sharif teaches at the university, and the party is their house-warming. Next door lives a retired doctor, Hilary Spinster, whose wife is dying in hospital; they have four grown-up children but it has not been a happy marriage. An accident, requiring Dr Spinster's medical intervention, brings the two families together.

Philip Hensher PIC: Graham Jepson

Eventually, with the Spinster children and grandchildren scattered, Hilary and Sharif will be friends, and the novel will end, suitably, with another party. So there is a shape to the book, even if at times it rambles, moving back and forward in time, abruptly from place to place and scene to scene, as Hensher manipulates his characters. This may make them sound like puppets – to be put back in the play-box when ”The End” is written, but these characters have vitality, the ability to surprise and the ability to move us.

A garden party in an English summer is delightful, but Sharif and Nazia are survivors of Bangladesh’s struggle for independence and the Pakistani Army’s brutal attempt to suppress rebellion – brutality so extreme as to be genocidal. One victim of the war was Sharif’s 17-year-old brother Rafiq, arrested and never seen again, presumed murdered. An Islamist brother-in-law, also now living in England, is believed to have informed against him. Their children will flourish in England, though always conscious of prejudice.

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The Spinsters, all unusually small, the tallest being only a couple of inches over five foot, may have on the face of it advantages their new neighbours lack, but their progress through the novel will be chequered and wayward. The eldest child, Leo, drops out of Oxford and disappears from his father’s life (and the pages of the novel) for year. Marriages go wrong, grandchildren are scattered, one son suffers a violent death; and throughout it all Dr Hilary goes on talking, endlessly interested, endlessly self-satisfied; a comic character who is also oddly touching. Somehow Hensher keeps all in motion, helped by reference to real-life events. These are so naturally, even unobtrusively, introduced into the narrative that, for example, even the London Tube bombings of 2005 don’t appear to be a journalistic intrusion, as such events in novels so often are.

You could call this a Condition of Modern England novel, and it is indeed that, inasmuch as anyone reading it with the close and alert attention it demands and deserves will learn much, and come to understand much, about the transformation the country has experienced over the decades since the Second World War. Yet to describe it as that is to diminish it, to make it seem serious in the wrong way; by that I mean serious as the best political or social journalism may be serious – intelligent, significant, offering a cogent or at least persuasive argument. Such seriousness however is so much less than a novel such as this one offers. Argument here is dramatic, conversation revealing in its liveliness and individuality. What Hensher has written here justifies DH Lawrence’s claim that the novel is “the true book of life”. It is rich, amusing, painful, comical-tragical and tragical-comical. It’s a novel like a wild garden, full of unexpected pleasures, unlooked for views, surprising encounters. Hensher is a master of the big scene, but also of the revealing snapshot. Sometimes today even clearly talented novelists don’t seem interested in trying to show us how people actually think, feel and live. Hensher does all this, and does it with sympathy and intelligence. Years ago he wrote a marvellous novel, The Mulberry Empire, set mostly in 19th century Afghanistan. I thought it unlikely he would ever do anything better, but he has.

The Friendly Ones, by Philip Hensher, 4th Estate, 579pp, £14.99