King of the Badgers Hardcover – Sep 16 2011
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"Philip Hensher's wonderfully complex, paradoxical subject in King of the Badgers is the nature of privacy, and of its violation...[He] has established himself as one of our most ambitious novelists. His ear for dialogue, sharp sense of the absurd and appreciation of human self-delusion recall Kingsley Amis; his fiction, like that of Amis, is powered by a strong if unconventional sense of morality. And, like Amis, he is one of fiction's rarest creatures: a writer who can move readers to stifled snorts of recognition, and then to outright laughter." -- Helen Dunmore, Guardian
"Were he not so marvelously himself, he might remind one of Thackeray, with whom he shares a brisk, efficiency at moving about a large cast and an intense vivid skill at defining minor figures...With Thackeray, too, Hensher shares a rare quality of kindness and an engaging fondness of seeing through the eyes of the insignificant, the peculiar, the powerless...His enjoyment of his own cleverness and fluency is utterly infectious." -- Jane Shilling, Telegraph
"Like Angus Wilson, a possible influence on these scenes from provincial life, Hensher's forte is the social round: the party; the conversation in the grocer's shop; the fragments of repartee borne back on the high street breeze...One is struck, and seduced, by a coruscating intelligence, that manifests itself in dozens of literary allusions waiting to be uncombed...and hundreds of individual sentences burnished up to the max...Hensher is one of the few English novelists at work who a) is seriously interested in the varieties of modern Englishness, and b) has the intellectual resources to address them." -- Independent
"King of the Badgers is a rich and ambitious novel, which manages both to offer a convincing picture of different levels of English society today and to explore the shifting certainties of individual lives. It is certainly easier to read than to summarise, and this is as it should be. After all, any novel capable of being precisely summed up in a short review is rarely worth reading." -- Allan Massie, Scotsman
"Cleverly shifting gear from time to time to keep us on our toes, Hensher hovers on the edge of black comedy and satire, but the dark shadows cast by the little girl's disappearance restrain him from going too far in those directions...Hensher has used an exceedingly sharp scalpel for this dissection of Middle England, and it would be a great disappointment if King of the Badgers didn't follow his previous novel, The Northern Clemency, on to the Man Booker shortlist." -- Alastair Mabbott, The Herald
"A powerfully delightful book, rich in pathos and drama, rowdy with life...Hensher's unflagging attention to detail, both physical and psychological, is extraordinary." -- Edmund Gordon, Times Literary Supplement
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Divided into three parts, the first part concerns the search for China O'Connor, though the disappearance becomes secondary to the development of atmosphere, social snobbery, and local characters, often depicted satirically. Part II has virtually nothing to do with the disappearance. Instead, the book provides a sympathetic and often moving portrait of David, the thirty-six-year-old gay son of Cath Butterworth and her husband Alec. David is fat and lonely, and all he wants is someone to love him. (This section also includes a gay orgy which stretches the boundaries between realism and pornography.) Part III moves to academia, among other settings, and the issues facing Miranda, a member of the university faculty from Hanmouth, but the author also brings continuing threads up to date--the increase of cameras as part of Neighborhood Watch, the increasing intrusion of government on privacy, the deaths of several people the reader has come to know, and the outcome of China's disappearance.
Hensher is a master of dialogue, with his characters often talking at cross purposes, or talking with the kind of abbreviated dialogue spoken by intimate friends or partners. Description is vivid and memorable. In talking of Micky, the "stepfather" of the missing China, Hensher says, "His bun-like face was not made bewildered by grief or fear. That was what he looked like." David was described as "clinging to his mother's girdle-straps," and Mr. Calvin's wife as looking like "a prize turnip."
Ironies combine with satire to create constant surprises, and though the author sometimes gets carried away with his own interests and forgets the novel's big picture (and the mysterious disappearance of the child), the book does create a vibrant and unforgettable picture of life in a small town in Devon in which the have-nots are simply not recognized. The book is hard to put down, and as the characters develop into real people, they exert their own charms on the reader, however uncharming they might be in personality. The threats to personal liberty and privacy have never seemed so imminent, and as the Neighborhood Watch cameras become ubiquitous, the reader cannot help but picture the ironic excesses of a Brave New World come to rural Devon. A surprising-- sad, funny, sometimes violent--study of contemporary life. Mary Whipple
The first thing I did before buying this book was to check how many pages it was and I was relieved it was advertised as 300 pages. I wanted to read a few books on holiday and not be bogged down with one huge novel. However the description is wrong. There are 436 pages in this hardback copy so it may be somewhere in between the slim novel and whale killing edition you're expecting.
There are 3 distinct parts to the book. The first third is most comparable to the Northern Clemency. There are the usual acute observations of behind closed doors family life but in this case the doors are flung wide open with an 8 year old girl China going missing, Shannon Matthews style. The mother is hilariously photographed holding a 'Where is China?' sign. It is perhaps the least compelling part of the book observing the police and press conferences and there is nothing to like or hold your interest about tragic China's family. It felt like the least involving, couldn't really be that concerned about them, parts of the Northern Clemency.
It's set in the modern day fictional North Devon town of Hanmouth. The time line is fairly short so thankfully it's not an epic trawl through the decades.
The quick 'insert here a paragraph' story snippets of political info were a little lecturing and grating e.g. did you know in the UK your DNA is kept on file for ever after minor offences and how the historic age of homosexual consent has left some people on the same registers as paedophiles. Which is awful when it comes to the police knocking on doors of local sex offenders when children go missing.
The book takes off in parts 2 and 3 with a shocking short chapter between the two. It's completely compelling and surpasses any of the characters, complexity and writing in the Northern Clemency. I can't think of anything to criticise. It's genius. It's moving and shocking at times plus has a wonderful party scene which surpasses the similar one in the Northern Clemency. Imagine the London gay scene attending an awkward 'meet the neighbours' house warming party. Old ladies, lap dogs and all. It's nicely contrasted with the gay orgy happening later down the road. Absolutely hilarious.
The humour is more apparent in this book or perhaps not hidden behind so much treacle. Even the final dramatic conclusion has some humour injected. There are some hilarious scenes in a fictional Barnstaple University where one lecturer says what she really thinks to her lazy students and bosses. In parts two and three you do care about the diverse characters and they are fantastic from the awful teenager Hettie who amongst her many teenage faults is homophobic to the gay misfit David and his almost boyfriend Mauro. The Hanmouth locals are also deliciously absurd and memorable. Eccentric, with a finger in everything happening in Hanmouth, Mr Calvin and his neighbourhood watch for one are very funny. One of the oldest characters Billa ends up doing a few memorable things too.
Very highly recommended. I remember writing in my Northern Clemency review that I thought a compelling rather than meandering story would be +5 star material from this author. This book has surpassed my expecations. It's meandering and compelling with characters that will stay with you a long time. Genius.
The novel is divided into three parts. The first centres around the disappearance of a young girl in the small town of Hanmouth. The incident shocks the community but also allows class snobbery to give a full airing to its tatty linen. The sad individuals obsessed with surveillance and security have a field day, insisting that no one is safe without more cameras to watch over all, and baying for the blood of any registered sex offender.
We are also introduced to Miranda and Kenyon. She is a self-important and bossy academic (plenty of models there) while he is a civil servant who has found a snug hideaway in the system, but their pretensions are pushing them deep into debt. Their daughter Hettie is clearly unhinged, a fact to which they are utterly oblivious.
It turns out that the missing girl was deliberately `kidnapped' by her mother's ex, but he is found murdered and now no one has a clue where the girl has gone. The most vociferous critics of the police are - for a time - subdued.
In the second part of the novel, Hensher turns his irreverent eye on fat, hairy gay men. The self-deprecating humour is a nice touch. David's parents have retired to Hanmouth and he has not fared well in their absence. He has a job writing mindless blurbs for mock-up novels to sell in the Chinese market, but you get the feeling that under the surface of nonsense there is a cri de coeur of romance trying to be heard. In order to save face with his parents, David convinces an Italian acquaintance, Mauro, to visit Hanmouth and pretend to be his boyfriend.
David's parents are trying ever so hard to fit in and have a budding friendship with Sam and Harry, a gay couple who have a domesticated life occasionally spiced up by orgies with other men of like build - as many as will fit into their living room. The other couple that emerges in this part of the novel is Hettie (Miranda and Kenyon's daughter) and Michael, the son of a visiting American academic. Hettie hasn't been interested in boys to date (she's 13), but is now doe-eyed for the transatlantic 15 year old.
David and Mauro attend a party put on by David's parents, but Sam and Harry arrive with a drugged-up and loud mechanic who shocks the guests. David and Mauro leave and head for the orgy at Sam and Harry's. The arrival of the other gay men in the streets of the small town outrages the busybodies of Neighbourhood Watch and gives them new cause for poking into other people's lives. The orgy provides some high comedy but David remains a sad figure. On the way back to London the next day he binges on burgers, snorts cocaine in the toilets of a lay-by and ends up dead.
The final third of the story sees a number of loose ends tied up, but the march of the nazis in Neighbourhood Watch continues and, despite resistance by some of the locals, you know that they will triumph. Their branded package of loathing and vindictiveness is too closely allied with the interests of modern policing to fail.
Hettie finds some resolution and forgiveness for her past sins, both real and imagined, but Michael seems to be getting the message that she's not the ideal partner. David's parents are deep in grief for the loss of their son and reach out to Mauro, still under the illusion that he was David's partner. However, they are mightily relieved when Mauro asks only a small token from them.
Miranda has pushed one too many causes one step too far and her university is now likely to fire her, though with a substantial severance package. Her husband Kenyon scores an extremely well paid job in the civil service, being the only one willing to take on the government's dirty work. Thus, in modern England the mediocre and undeserving reap their rich rewards.
The kidnapped girl is found by an observant man coming to empty the septic tank of a remote cottage, but the man who has been holding her takes off and we are left not knowing if he will ever face retribution for what he has done. In the closing scene, we see Sam and Harry reject the opportunity for a small orgy and settle for a quiet night in front of the telly instead. Ah, England.
This is a long novel and there are many other characters and sub-plots. At times it feels unwieldy, though the action keeps moving at a good clip. None of the characters is explored in depth (a pre-requisite of satire?) and the relationships between people, even the settled couples, display little substance. No one really seems very interested in anyone else, and no one here is very interesting.
Since 2005, Hensher has been an academic teaching English and creative writing, and the same period has marked a slow decline in his considerable ability to write compelling and complex prose. The novel consists of a very large number of short chapters, the divisions often unnecessary, and between the three parts he inserts two `Impromptus'. These are simply to remind us that there is an omniscient author at work (yes, that old trickery is still considered clever in academia) but they add no new dimension to our understanding, merely carrying the plot a bit further along. Hensher also indulges in some imagery that, while innovative, feels a little too contrived.
Some critics have compared this novel to the works of Kingsley Amis. Apparently they intended that as a compliment. Good satire is very hard to pull off. King of the Badgers doesn't have the subtlety and depth of Jonathan Coe's writing, but it is an amusing romp all the same and the story manages to skewer some pretensions of modern England in a satisfying way.