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A reader's guide to The Northern Clemency

Updated Thursday, 2nd April 2009

In April we begin a six-month tour of the works shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize. First in line is 'The Northern Clemency' by Philip Hensher, an evocative epic set in Thatcher's Britain. Stephanie Forward introduces the novel...

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Philip Hensher's saga The Northern Clemency was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize. It spans over two decades, beginning in 1974, and primarily it charts the experiences of two lower-middle-class families.

Malcolm and Katherine Glover, with their three children Daniel, Jane and Tim, are native to Sheffield; their neighbours Bernie, Alice, Sandra and Francis Sellers relocate there from London.

Margaret Thatcher Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: USFederalGovernment via Wikimedia


The backdrop is Thatcherism and the social and economic changes that took place in England. Tim Glover becomes an activist during the miners’ strike of 1984, selling a magazine called ‘The Spartacist’, but the political context does not swamp the book.

The novel contains many different plots, involving a host of characters. Third person narrative is used throughout, with the perspective switching between the main players.

Hensher sets his scenes carefully, providing precise details about locations and using delightful dialect words such as ‘mardy’ and ‘nesh’.

He evokes the period by describing the food and décor in vogue.At times the sense of authenticity is powerful: for example in Book Two, when the narrator succeeds in conveying the traumatic ordeal of transferring to a new school.

Whilst some critics have felt that The Northern Clemency recalls great nineteenth-century epics, others have baulked at its length. There have been suggestions that Hensher dwells too much upon trivial details, and that certain passages are melodramatic and unrealistic.

Join us to discuss these points and any others you would like to raise. We could debate the meaning of the title 'The Northern Clemency'!





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