Keeping up with the Spinsters

10 March 2018

Philip Hensher is on fine form in this subtle epic about interwoven family dramas, discovers Nakul Krishna

THE FRIENDLY ONES by Philip Hensher 624pp, Fourth Estate, £14.99, ebook £8.99

Philip Hensher’s new book begins in medias res, at a barbecue in a Sheffield garden in what we gather must be the early Nineties. The hosts are a Bangladeshi family, educated, secular, liberal, middle-class, and new in the neighbourhood. A brief and non-fatal emergency – one of the children almost chokes on the seed of an exotic fruit – puts the Sharifullahs into closer than usual contact with their neighbour, a garrulous retired GP, and later, with the dispersed and dysfunctional Spinster clan.

This is the scaffolding; everything in this novel is about the details. The story ranges a couple of decades back – to the Sharifullahs’ harrowing experiences of the early years of the Bangladeshi nation, their early years in England, and the childhoods of the Spinster boys and girls – and forward to the present, where the dying of the Nineties are dead, the old older, the married divorced and the traumas of childhood have settled into the defects of adult character.

All of this is done with a complexity of structure that manages to avoid both the crudeness of the plain flashback and the annoyances of postmodern trickery. Complex family relationships are rarely revealed, more often left to be worked out; the reader can manage without, but will wish for, a family tree to refer back to. There are hints at dark secrets, but nothing important is withheld too long. The Sharifullahs’ secrets are darker – one sibling a victim of Pakistani soldiers in the war of 1971, another a collaborator – and serve to put the travails of the Spinsters (an affair, a couple of broken marriages, a financial scandal, a rough term at Oxford) into perspective.

Hensher is splendid on upper-class nastiness – or more specifically, on the put-on brutality of the self-deceiving parvenu. The dialogue given to the Spinster grandchildren – a gun-wielding adolescent called Tresco and his sister Tamara – is just ghastly enough to appal while stopping short of outright parody. The cod Freudianism of The Northern Clemency, the last of Hensher’s books to cover roughly this milieu and period, has been replaced with something subtler. There was something a little too obvious about the central psychoanalytic strand of the earlier book – the little boy whose pet snake is trampled to death by his enraged mother reappears a couple of decades later as a humourless Marxist sociologist with a deep grudge against women.

Hensher does a better job with Josh, the Spinster cousin we see as a bookish boy dragged along on a piece of rope as part of Tresco’s ideal of a wholesome game. We are heartened when the adult Josh turns out all right, a solicitor with an Oxford degree, but unsurprised that he spends his weekends walked on a lead by a dominatrix at a club called On Your Knees. Nothing is inevitable about this, but it is painfully plausible that a childhood humiliation might reappear as an aspect of adult sexuality.

The Friendly Ones turns out to have a wonderfully old-fashioned – there is no other word for it – message. Hensher doesn’t quite take the Miss Prism view of fiction (“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily”); he has too much room for assessments of character between good and bad. But his characters can be arranged, more or less neatly, on a scale of neighbourliness. There are those who cannot be bothered, those who are actively malevolent, and those who at least try, in the face of the starkest differences. As one of the Sharifullahs has occasion to say, puzzled at the unwillingness of his neighbours even to say hello, “You just have to accept it. […] There are the unpleasant ones, who you wouldn’t want to know in any case. And then there are the friendly ones. It’s always going to be the same.”

This is one of many appearances of the title, which ends up having to do what the plot itself does not, namely to unify the disparate themes of a large and digressive book. The phrase first appears as a darkly ironic euphemism for the East Pakistanis (as they then were) who were complicit with the efforts of the West Pakistani government and military to crush the growing Bengali nationalism. But it comes to have an entirely unironic sense: Hensher’s friendly ones are not guaranteed happiness, but they have a vastly better shot at it than the unfriendly ones.

Hensher’s writing here has its customary virtues: self-effacing but never merely workmanlike. There is a real feel for landscapes, rural and urban, but never a lapse into purple prose. Seen through the eyes of a Bangladeshi man on honeymoon with his hijab-wearing wife, “the plunge and curve of rock, the trim grass and heather, the patches of tall, leaning, bearded grass” in St Ives are no longer a cliché. Sheffield is evoked without being mechanically described, as is Dhaka, even when all the immigrant can preserve of it is the memory of a smell, “damp and mottle and a warm hot iodine humidity, steel-edged”.

The sections set in Bangladesh ring true in ways that must have involved something more than diligent research. The dialogue in English successfully evokes the syntax and vocabulary of the Bengali, a rare enough feat when attempted by a fully bilingual author. Hensher can do youthful excitement well: the young Bengali nationalists who speak as if they are living, as they almost were, in the early days of a better nation, sound both like and unlike the young artistic revolutionaries of the Weimar years, the heroes of the compelling early sections of his last novel about historical misfits, The Emperor Waltz.

Hensher’s obvious sympathy for their cause, and his anger at the systematic killings of Bengali intellectuals by the Pakistani army and their local collaborators, itself embodies the quality his book celebrates: the capacity for real anger on behalf of people – a people – other than one’s own.

The Friendly Ones is a long novel, able to provide the special satisfactions – narrative digressions, fully realised minor characters – no shorter book could manage. But it is populous enough, and the narrative gappy enough, to leave us with unresolved mysteries. Some characters are opaque even after being given the lion’s share of the author’s attention. It may be a flaw in the book that one can say, ingenuously, that one doesn’t exactly know the characters by the end. But one way of being neighbourly is to allow one’s neighbours their privacy. Hensher’s character portraits, like his portraits of Sheffield, tell us the important things and leave us to fill in the blanks.