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King Of The Badgers [Hardcover]

Philip Hensher
1.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Sept. 20 2011

Far from London's crime and pollution, Hanmouth's wealthier residents live in picturesque, heavily mortgaged cottages in the center of a town packed with artisanal cheese shops and antiques stores. They're reminded of the town's less desirable outskirts -- with their grim, flimsy housing stock and chain stores -- only when their neighbors have the presumption to claim also to live in Hanmouth.

When an eight-year-old girl from the outer area goes missing, England's eyes suddenly turn toward the sleepy town with a curiosity as piercing and unblinking as the closed-circuit security cameras that line Hanmouth's idyllic streets. But somehow these cameras have missed the abduction of the girl, whose name is China. Is her blank-eyed hairdresser mother hiding her as part of a moneymaking hoax? Has she been abducted by one of the lurking perverts the townspeople imagine the cameras are protecting them from? Perhaps more cameras are needed?

As it turns out, more than one resident of Hanmouth has a secret hidden behind closed doors. There's Sam and Harry, the cheesemonger and aristocrat who lead the county's gay orgies. The quiet husband of postcolonial theorist Miranda (everyone agrees she's marvelous) keeps a male lover, while their daughter disembowels dolls she's named Child Pornography and Slightly Jewish. Moral crusader John Calvin's Neighborhood Watch has an unusual reason for holding its meetings in secret. And, of course, somewhere out there is the house where little China is hidden.

With the dark hilarity and unflinching honesty of a modern-day Middlemarch, King of the Badgers demolishes the already fragile privacy of Hanmouth's inhabitants. These characters, exquisitely drawn and rawly human, proclaim Philip Hensher's status as an extraordinary chronicler of the domestic, and one of the world's most dazzling and ambitious novelists.


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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

About the Author

Philip Hensher is a British novelist, critic, and journalist. He writes for The Guardian and The Independent and teaches creative writing at the University of Exeter. His sixth novel, The Northern Clemency, was short-listed for the 2008 Man Booker Prize.

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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Why bother? Jan. 17 2012
Format:Hardcover
I purchased this book with much anticipation and was sorely disappointed. The story grabbed my attention at the beginning with the disappearance of the young girl, but I quickly lost interest as the story shifted to the lives of the banal inhabitants of Hammouth. I found myself asking "who cares?" in reading about their lives and even skipped pages to get through this stinker. Save your money for a better read - may I suggest "Half-Blood Blues".
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Amazon.com: 3.1 out of 5 stars  13 reviews
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Class Act July 25 2011
By Ms. Mary O'donnell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Philip Hensher's "King of the Badgers" is a challenging, enjoyable, deftly written exploration of class and punishment in contemporary Britain. Set in a smug-beyond-belief Southern English enclave of PC behaviour and middle-class correctness, it manages to deal with tragedy and yet - on several occasions - be both amusing and enlightening. Hensher has written a work that, incidentally, deals with gayness (among other things), yet avoids any possiblity of this ever being pigeonholed under the heading 'gay fiction'. It is not. This is a global take on what happens and the different perspectives that shift into the light, when the child of a working-class mother disappears without trace. The sifting within a community regarding who might be to blame, the way official forces are equally prey to misreading the evidence (on the basis of social prejudice), is rivettingly brought to light, and responses to class and origin are alarmingly predictable. As the various characters surrounding the subtly-handled drama of the missing child shift forward and are each illuminated in all their (frequent) inglory, the reader is also drawn along, absorbed at the manner in which ordinary town life settles once again over all kinds of atrocity, like a quiet pond on a breezeless day. The moral centre of the novel is herself young - an awkward, interesting teenager - and in the middle of all the posturing self-absorption of so many adults, she achieves a particular radiance towards the end of the narrative. Henscher's characters as portrayed within this very pluralistic and liberal community, are human and real, disappointing as well as sometimes delightful, full of the blithe egotism and self-delusion we all carry some of the time regarding ourselves. In the background is the recent burgeoning England of big borrowings and massive mortgages, and the first hints of what happens when the middle-class dream of excess begins to crumble. Most of all though, this is fiction worth attending to because the writer has worked through the layers of deception and hypocrisy, the automatic judging voices that swing unconsciously into action when tragedy strikes a family, and in so doing allows the reader to interrogate his or her own attitudes. The miracle is that this peculiarly moral novel is in no way moralising or sermonising. Brilliant.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Sympathy [for the family of the missing child] ran very low among the members of the reading group of Hanmouth." Sept. 13 2011
By Mary Whipple - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
(4.5 stars) Though controversial author/critic Philip Hensher is not without his detractors, this book is an utterly compelling work of social criticism, a classic example of the best of social satire. Focusing on the lives of the long-time residents of Hanmouth in Devon, a community which has recently expanded and now includes less-educated, less affluent people who live in a council estate, the novel opens with the disappearance of China O'Connor, a child of about ten who has been living in the council estate with her mother, a 27-year-old hairdresser, her three siblings, and her "third stepfather," age twenty. The disappearance shocks the community, where the "elite" have never before had to deal with sordid issues like this, and many resent the time and effort the town has expended to find the child. The Hanmouth book club holds its discussion of a Japanese novel as scheduled, and the rest of the "old" community goes about their lives, which have been little changed by events--except, of course, by the influx of reporters and the unwashed public.

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
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing and deceiving Nov. 27 2011
By nobodyleaves - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I will preface this by saying Hensher is a brilliantly witty writer. The wit, however, is not enough to save this book. Do not be deceived, the book jacket sells the book as mainly a mystery, IT IS NOT. After engaging the reader for chapters in the kidnapping/disappearance of an eight year old child, the entire story is dropped until almost the end of the book when the story is brought back in as an afterthought. The rest of the novel teaches us that most men are gay, especially the married ones, all gay men are unfaithful, all wives are clueless *rhymes with witches*, fat gay men are unattractive and the few men that aren't gay spend their time sexually molesting little girls. I could have done without being so well-informed. Another reviewer called it "mean spirited" and I believe that to be an understatement. I hate novels that make me feel as if the writer had an axe to grind and decided to write a book to grind it. It's a cheap trick and usually doesn't work. With the talent for wordcraft that Mr. Hensher so obviously has, it's a huge disappointment that he coudn't have applied it to a plot.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow! June 12 2011
By debbie8355 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I really liked the Northern Clemency (I gave it 4 stars) although it was a bit like wading through 700+ pages of hypnotic, literary treacle but this is an absolutely superb book. The King of the Badgers manages to be meandering and completely compelling with a colourful cast of characters from all generations. There's a main suspense filled plot combined with some beautiful writing. It's a fantastic read.

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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A nice skewering of English society Nov. 2 2012
By Acorn - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is a satirical novel that takes aim at a number of elements in contemporary English society. The story is based on the absurd premise that life in rural Devon might be interesting, and shows that even when that appears to be true, the reality is just shallow and thin.

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.
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