The Friendly Ones review: Philip Hensher skilfully combines his twin themes
John Boyne on a novel of family life, exile and conflict between siblings
Philip Hensher: The Friendly Ones is likely to be one of the better novels of 2018
The Friendly Ones
Admirers of Philip Hensher’s novels, and I am one, will know that his writing has had two strands. There are the long, involving and occasionally hilarious family dramas, such as King of the Badgers and the Booker-shortlisted The Northern Clemency, and the books centred around Asian characters and their experiences of war, as in The Mulberry Empire, which explores the British Empire’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1830s, and Scenes from Early Life, which is set in Bangladesh. Now, at last, Hensher has combined his twin themes into a single skilful work that examines family life, exile and conflict between siblings.
The Friendly Ones begins with the disruption of a barbecue at Sharif and Nazia’s house when a young boy almost chokes to death but is, happily, saved by their next-door neighbour, the retired doctor Hilary Spinster. It’s a dramatic opening, overflowing with characters and names, for Sharif’s family is wide and loud, and it recalls something of the first chapter of Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap in its introduction to a multitude of people whose identities the reader must untangle and remember.
It is Hilary, however, not the Asian family, who takes centre stage in the first half, as we meet his four children, not one of whom stands over 5ft 2in, and learn of his difficult relationship with his wife, Celia, who is dying in hospital of bowel cancer and whom he wants to divorce before it’s too late.
Every insecurity and moment of bravado is played out with a sympathetic and unjudgmental understanding of the traumas of youth
The Spinsters are an unusual crew, having each suffered various disappointments in their lives, none more than Leo, a once confident teenager whose failure at Oxford has left a scar. The chapters that deal with his youth, among the best in the book, present a picture of someone who says the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time and whose life’s trajectory changes on account of it, a concept that feels very relevant today. The subsequent bullying that he endures, leading to his departure from university, is painful to read.
The relationship between the four siblings is curious. They all seem rather nice but are unable to make any connection with each other or with their offspring, the next generation of Spinsters, an aimless tribe of entitled idlers. Hensher has always written very well about young people – I don’t think I’ve laughed as much in a novel as I did during a scene in The Emperor Waltz when an innocent little prig named Basil gets drunk and high on poppers – and he doesn’t disappoint here. Every insecurity and moment of bravado is played out with a sympathetic and unjudgmental understanding of the traumas of youth.
The second half of the novel is mostly devoted to Sharif’s history, the war in Bangladesh and the effect family conflict has had on his extended family over the decades. There’s less humour here, naturally, but Hensher has a firm grasp on the politics of the time and how divisive they can be.
The Friendly Ones is another in a series of great books Philip Hensher has produced since The Northern Clemency
One could argue that the novel’s structure might have worked better had the two halves run concurrently rather than consecutively, perhaps with a chapter from the British side followed by a chapter from the Bangladeshi, as one tends to miss the Spinsters when they disappear for long stretches later in the novel. But perhaps this is testament to how engaging each of their stories are. One of the most affecting parts in the second section tells the story of Mahfouz, who has been banished from the family circle, as he spends his honeymoon with his much younger second wife. Together they suffer the indignity of people staring at the woman in the veil and the discomfort and racial unease that white English people often feel around immigrants. There’s a powerful romance in this section, a reciprocal kindness and understanding between husband to wife that is particularly moving.
Philip Hensher is a prolific writer of long novels, and there’s something wonderfully Dickensian in his larger-than-life characterisations. He’s a brilliant comic writer, too, and an astute political commentator, and The Friendly Ones is another in a series of great books he’s produced since The Northern Clemency, which seemed to herald a new beginning in his career after his early Westminster satires. I suspect this will be one of the better novels of 2018.
John Boyne’s latest novel is The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Doubleday)