Philip Hensher’s 12th work of fiction begins with the alluring comforts of interconnecting families observed in an affluent Sheffield suburb, both at play and in crisis. That events are safely tucked up in the past of two or three decades ago, and that the first crisis – a choking child saved by an emergency tracheotomy at a garden party – is averted by reflexive expertise, adds to the sense that all will be well. It’s an illusion, as of course we might have expected, but the extent to which Hensher expands and fractures the idea of the domestic saga makes The Friendly Ones a frequently discomforting and disorientating reading experience.
Over the course of some 600 pages, Hensher revisits the territory of his previous Sheffield-based novel, The Northern Clemency, and amalgamates it with his writing on empire and migration, and specifically with the post-partition history of Bangladesh, evoked his novel Scenes from Early Life. In that book, he drew heavily on real-life events, and in particular the family life of his husband, Zaved Mahmood; here, he acknowledges deriving some of his book from a memoir of the 1971 War of Independence in Bangladesh, and also borrowing plot elements from The Winter’s Tale and Eugene Onegin.
A synthesis of material, traditions and styles is afoot, then, although Hensher is aiming higher than Enrico, the unattractive Italian academic whose research applies a Marxist critique to colonialism, thereby ranking countries as bourgeois, petit bourgeois or proletarian. One feels Hensher might have met this character, who finds himself laughed out of academia and advised to get a job in local government.
We meet Enrico only fleetingly, though he is memorable. He turns up at that first gathering, an awkward, ungracious guest likened to “an antibody sourly reacting to the flow of the party”. Attempts by his hosts, Sharif and Nazia, to accommodate him – taking him to an Italian restaurant and for a walk in the countryside – are not only unsuccessful but also archly comic; they are the immigrants, showing another incomer the locale, woefully unable to distinguish between one bit of Italy and another. In this context, they are “the friendly ones”, a shorthand that they’ve hit upon to differentiate between the Brits they meet when they settle in Sheffield in 1975, most of whom persist in the belief that they are from India, or at least Pakistan.
Britain, it transpires, knows nothing of the vicious war and genocide that accompanied the emergence of Bangladesh; nothing, certainly, of the other “friendly ones”, the ultra-religious network who whisked off Sharif’s younger brother, a freedom fighter. “Look,” Nazia fantasises about replying to a Home Office interviewer keen to establish whether her mother-in-law will also be arriving at Heathrow: “My husband’s brother was taken away from her by the Pakistanis and probably tortured to death. His mother went to the police station every day for a year or more, long after the Pakistanis had been thrown out. She knows he must be dead. His body is somewhere in Bangladesh. She doesn’t know what happened to him at the end. Do you think anything on earth would get her to leave the land where her younger son’s body is lying before she knows where he is and how he died?”
In the second half of the book, we’re taken back to 1971, and to the house in Dhaka’s Dhanmondi district in which Sharif’s family are immured during the fighting. Hitherto, we’ve largely been in the company of Nazia and Sharif’s Sheffield neighbours, the Spinsters, a large and unhappy family who, for no obvious reason beyond the author’s antic pleasure, are all exceptionally short.
The paterfamilias is a retired GP whose sensitively compassionate way with patients is inversely mirrored by an inability to communicate with his family; as his wife lies dying, he wonders whether now would be a good time to set her free with a divorce (it wouldn’t). Their four children are occasionally useless and frequently miserable; the minute they begin to get it together, they ship out, scurrying up and down the social ladder in a way that seems inexplicable to them, let alone the reader. A younger generation is even more all over the place.
Perhaps it comes down to priorities, and priorities come down to what you feel is at stake. “There’s too much going on about love here,” Sharif remarks to Nazia when they first arrive in the country. “Have you noticed? All their books are about falling in love. Has she found the right man? Is the right man going to marry the right woman? Does the man investigating the crime have a happy marriage, are they in love, are they still in love, how does he show it – my God it goes on.”
Sharif is surely on to something here, as is Hensher, who has created a novel in which romantic love is unrequited, rebuffed, unspoken, incomplete, unsuitable – but never, really, centre stage. It makes room for an awful lot of other things to come to the fore.
Alex Clark will be chairing events with Rose Tremain, Simon Amstell and Denise Mina at Cambridge Literary Festival
The Friendly Ones
4th Estate, 579pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 04 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire