On the George Washington Bloom Project: The Northern Clemency


In which The Gay Recluse reads dead flowers.


When we first read about The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher, we were excited! Not only was it short-listed for the Booker Prize, but it was rated the #1 Editors’ Pick for Best Book of 2008 by Amazon.com.* And oh yeah, Hensher is “openly gay” — kinda hate that expression, but whatevs — and has written trenchantly about the lack of gay actors in Hollywood, so without knowing that much about the book, we expected some insight into what we tend to think about as gay identity, or the gay voice.


The first quarter of the book is stunning. In exquisitely lyrical prose, Hensher describes the interactions among and between two families in a northern British suburb, one that has lived there for some time and another that is relocating from London. It’s the early 1970s, and as Hensher easily shifts perspective — at his best, reading him is really like getting wrapped up in a good teevee series — from the mothers to the daughters and the sons, he perfectly captures a sense of suburban ennui on one hand, and a kind of crushing terror of adolescence on the other. There are a few scenes — e.g., one of the mothers sort of loses her shit after her husband goes A.W.O.L. and kills her son’s pet, another in which a boy’s leg is broken during an elementary school recess — that are shockingly disturbing and brutal and ultimately heartbreaking, because we are taken back to the inexplicable cruelty and horror of youth as it plays out under the tranquil sheen of the suburbs.


Moreover, we are left with the sense that one or both of the youngest boys in the families are — or will be — gay, because they are nervous and obsessive and uncomfortable in ways that resonated with our own 1970s suburban upbringing, and so as the first section of the book ends, we look forward to learning more, not only about the boys, but about their older siblings, each of whom has appealing quirks and charms and less-appealing faults.


At this point, however, the tone of the book completely changes as we jump the shark lol ahead perhaps a decade into the future. We briefly meet the boys  — both are out of high school — but they are now beyond our empathy: one is sort of a freakish communist/Marxist who now hates his parents and agitates with some snobby leftist students on behalf of the local union, and the other has dropped out of college and moved back to London, where we don’t learn much about him except that he occasionally dates women (but without success), likes classical music and works a boring job. In short, we kind of suspect that he’s probably gay, but we don’t really get any insight or exploration into his condition, just a kind of blanket denial — at one point he sort of holds out that he’s asexual — that ultimately fails to hold our interest. Meanwhile, none of the other characters are developed with greater resolve, so that as we trudge forward, we find ourselves longing for the beginning of the book.


Also, instead of focusing on his core characters, Hensher allows the plot to seriously drift and instead offer pages and pages and pages — to give what is perhaps the most pointlessly egregious example — of a subplot involving a drug-dealing/money-laundering scheme. (We cannot help but wonder: did anyone edit this book? It could have easily been 200 pages shorter without losing anything.) True, the mother had an affair with a man in the scheme, but do we really need to follow him to a country house and meet his mafioso boss and family, when all we’re interested in is the fact that the woman had the affair and the ways it has impacted her relationship with her husband (i.e., the father of one of the boys)? If Hensher’s objective was to elevate the mundane into the dramatic — and he does this brilliantly at the beginning — why introduce a cheesy teevee plot device like this?


Which — i.e., the drug-dealer subplot — may have been forgivable except the rest of the book never recovers from similar digressions — e.g., an Australian we meet on one page kills himself in act of auto-eroticism ten pages later! someone starts dating a working-class girl, whose parents of course are sweet and lovable and dance the tango and earnestly offer tea in their best china — so that by the end, we don’t really have much sense of — or feelings for — any of the characters (much less insight into questions of gay identity).


We’re not saying that Hensher — or any gay writer — has a responsibility to explore these issues, but after setting them up so beautifully, he seemed to miss an opportunity to explore the truth as it’s so rarely done.


If the book at its best feels like it was made for teevee, this is also its flaw; it’s like one of those series that starts out with promise, but quickly drifts into hackneyed melodrama, leaving us with a longing — even if we choose to watch — to change the channel or perhaps fall asleep, where we can dream in images that while at times blurry at least hold some sign of our true selves.

*Despite our mixed feelings, we still encourage everyone to buy this book and judge for yourself.

4 Responses to “On the George Washington Bloom Project: The Northern Clemency”

  1. Well, I think I will miss this one…. Have you seen the series (I believe it was made for Brit TV) called THE LINE OF BEAUTY, from the novel of the same name? It might be more to your liking (both the novel and its adaptation), and it’s available from most online rental services….

  2. Hi James — Yes, I’ve read THE LINE OF BEAUTY and several other books by Alan Hollinghurst, who is a hero as far as I’m concerned for his ability to combine high-minded literary themes/writing with graphic depictions of gay sex. Haven’t seen the teevee series, though, but will def add to the queue!

  3. Damn, baby, I love your posts so much–where else can I read a really good book review while also looking at pictures so pleasing and beautiful I sigh?! I always wonder what the editors do when a book loses focus like this. I read and liked the first part of a Susan Cheever memoir and then it fell apart into morbid confessional, confusing events (as it gets closer to the present she seemed more reticent and things were left out) and name dropping. It was as if the good parts of the book were pulled out of a highly polished proposal, but then the later parts were her just trying to finish the damn thing and also did not have the benefit of being reworked after sitting for a period of time. You’d hope an editor would horn in at that point but then again I guess editors are not magicians.

    • Thanks, K — my guess is that editors are too busy dealing with marketing and production to spend too much time on traditional editing!

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