Loosely based on the faked abduction of Shannon Matthews, Philip Hensher's latest novel should be a compelling read, but somehow it isn't.
King of the Badgers: Abduction tale falls flat
It's easy to see what provided the inspiration for Philip Hensher's latest novel. In 2008, a British girl called Shannon Matthews went missing from her home in West Yorkshire. She was found a few weeks later at the house of a man known to her mother. Her abduction had been faked in an attempt by the family to gather charitable donations.
In Hensher's King of the Badgers, China, an eight-year-old girl, vanishes from the fictional town of Hanmouth, in the west of England. The town itself is a genteel, middle-class environment, fringed by "despoiling and misspeaking" estates. Like Shannon Matthews, the girl hails from one of these less salubrious areas. As the police begin their investigation, the town is invaded by the national media and assorted rubberneckers, and the book begins to follow the effects of this invasion of privacy upon the town's middle-class inhabitants.
It should make for a compelling tale, but it doesn't. Hensher doesn't know how much emphasis to give his storylines. The abduction and its initial investigation take up much of the first hundred pages. It's rather gripping - the depiction of the girl's dubious family members and the pressure put on them by the media and police investigation is exquisitely drawn, as is the malign influence of a rather creepy local using the scandal to further his Neighbourhood Watch scheme.
But before we know it we're off to meet Miranda, a university lecturer who runs a reading club, her husband Kenyon, a civil servant, and their daughter. Then come Kitty and Bella, an elderly pair of sisters, then Sam and Harry, a gay couple, one of whom runs the town cheese shop, and the other of whom is an aristocratic lawyer, then a retired couple with a gay son, David, who lives alone in St Albans and works as a copywriter, then an artist frustrated with her tenant and ...
By this point the lost child hasn't just taken a back seat, she's faded away entirely. What happens to her? We don't learn any more for 150 pages or so, because first we've got to hear about Kenyon's secret gay inclinations, and the story of how mild-mannered David is half strung along by a flaky Italian stud called Mauro, how Miranda has upset one of her students, and so on.
These vignettes are all very convincingly drawn, but when we get back to the abducted child the storyline lurches on with such force it's as if Hensher has slapped himself to wake up. One might argue that he's always been about the vagaries of social nuance - the abduction is only there to add shade. Maybe so, but given the contrast between the treatment of that storyline and the ones that succeed it, it glares like a Van Gogh skyline behind a Holbein portrait.
And this inability to restrict the vista runs far deeper when we consider the issue of style. Hensher has no problem with calling a spade a spade - it's just that he gets distracted by all sorts of issues surrounding it. Is it used for digging or borders? Stainless steel or cast iron? From which hardware shop was it bought and how much did it cost? Does the price reflect any kind of fluctuation in Britain's garden tool market circa 2009? Only once such thorny issues have been dealt with does he feel he can tackle more abstruse topics, such as what the spade might be used for and by whom.
At its worst, this tendency is jarring. When a dead body is found in the woods, we have hundreds of words on how a middle-aged male character we never hear of again became involved in a particular sexual scene thanks to the internet, and the things he got up to once he did, and how that eventually meant he went to the woods one day and stumbled across the body. What's the point? Maybe it's a weak attempt to tease out the theme of privacy. It seems more like an unimaginative bid to spice up a hackneyed plot development.
Hensher can't introduce us to a character without describing their houses in the kind of depth that belongs to an interior design magazine, or discussing their careers in far fuller detail than would be found on their CVs. We're told about the unremarkable process by which a couple bought their house from no fewer than two different perspectives - theirs and their son's. It tells us plenty about their personalities, but doesn't make it any less tedious. It's almost as if he's playing a game with us, refusing to fulfil our teleological cravings, imploring us to look beyond the crass desire for story at the real truths that lie beyond.
That would be fine, but astute dissection of social minutiae can only carry you so far when there's nothing going on behind it. Digression is a perfectly acceptable literary trope - writers from Edmund Spenser to David Foster Wallace have been at their best when they go off-topic, but that's because the intellectual development is surprising or because it develops an overarching theme in an unexpected way.
King of the Badgers can't manage this, because it's just a long bagatelle. The conflict between the public and private and the encroachment of the former on the latter is the central theme to which Hensher keeps returning, gasping for air out of the pool of social observation in which he's drowning, but he doesn't have anything new to say about it. Nor class, once he gives up on China's parents and family and heads straight for the safer pastures of etiquette at gay orgies and middle-class book clubs.
This may be a slightly unfair point. Hensher never has been a realist in the Victorian sense. That horrible tendency to overindulge has a flip side that constitutes his great strength. He's still a great writer; just one who's written a poor book. Critics often liken him to George Eliot in his desire to present a catalogue of British society, but in the fussiness of his prose style Forster and Austen are more direct influences. Every character is utterly believable: they simply are, and at his best that's more than enough. It's for the reader to attach meaning.
There's a blink-and-you-miss-it quality to his control of language, too. It's in the odd choice of adjective and verb: a young soldier is obliged to show up to the funeral of an old man from his regiment - the bereaved wife watches him "in his uniform, zap the door open, get in, and drive off in an embarrassed, stately way". He can suddenly put us disturbingly close to a paedophile's thought processes: "He went down to the cellar and made love to the little girl. Then he came up, made a sandwich for her, and took it down again with some fruit and a raspberry Petit Filou." There's a line of subtle irony throughout: one of the characters is on the verge of committing a heinous deception, but "at that exact moment, struck by a statement of money, the temptations of nobility, of selfishness, had struck him."
That said, it can be undermined by the difficulties in judging how far he is striving for verisimilitude. The dialogue is largely convincing, though it can tend towards the expository and a few particularly middle-class lines wouldn't look out of place in a Bertie Wooster monologue. Nor does some of the plotting fit - as Kenyon's train pulls out of Paddington, a youth pulls out a gun and commits a highly unlikely massacre on one of the platforms, a random event he forgets about until the final pages, whereupon it appears the death of one of the victims has granted him a happy ending in the form of a job promotion.
It all leads back to the question of what the meticulously drawn characters and glittering prose are doing in a book with so little direction. Most likely, it's a fear at an editorial level about stymieing Hensher's greatest asset. In the internet age, art and brevity are increasingly synonymous. The almost autistic detail of his writing is something to be cherished - he's never been one to say "less is more". And yet, sometimes it is.
Alan White's work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, Observer, Private Eye and The Oldie.