Friday, November 11, 2011

King of the Badgers

The new novel by Philip Hensher, King of the Badgers, is an ambitious state of the nation novel. It is a sometimes entertaining, sometimes horrifying dissection of a community. It satirizes, illuminates and exposes current manners and mindsets in Great Britain.

Taking apart middle class snobbery and pretensions is not a new endeavor for Hensher.  In a terrific earlier novel, The NorthernClemency he did the same thing on a much smaller scale and in a historical context. The distance that history provides gives a writer the luxury of faux hindsight. Hensher doesn’t get that gift in King of the Badgers. His world in this new novel is contemporary and he works hard to keep it relevant.  

Hensher uses a missing child from the wrong side of the tracks as the catalyst to peel away the picture postcard pretty of the seaside town of Hanmouth.  The missing child isn’t from one of the many sanitized into respectability families. Eight year old China O’Connor and her patchwork family are residents of the public housing that the more comfortable citizens of Hanmouth do not acknowledge as part of their town.  China’s mother is a woman with many children, all from different fathers. When your last name is Rockefeller or Vanderbilt in some social circles this method of breeding would be considered acceptable but when you live in Hanmouth and your last name is O’Connor this type of parent makes you trash.
Do not for a minute think that this book is a mystery novel. Despite the kidnapping of China and its effect on all of the characters in the novel this is no detective story. Poor China gets the ball rolling but even a missing child cannot break through the self absorption of these people.

The mighty of Hanmouth see China’s disappearance as a vindication of their desires for more protection from…from everything really. One of the sad truths of the novel is the characters desires to be accepted and at the same time be free to express all the behaviors that they fear will label them as unacceptable.

The bigger canvas of King of the Badgers allows Hensher to impress us with his skills in manipulating a large cast of characters. It also provides a broader menu of pretensions to penetrate.  He is certainly up to the task. Each of the many characters has a complete story and a role to play in this cross section of life lived in the proverbial nice place to live. However the book is not a revelation a minute soap opera. There is a slightly documentary tone to the novel that juxtaposes nicely with the humorous elements of the book as it reinforces the honesty of Hensler’s portrait.
P.S. That cover? What the heck? Who was on crack the day that was selected? Believe it or not it looks even worse in person. It looks like a cover you would find on a local historical society cookbook. Painful.

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