After the success of The Northern Clemency, shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize, Philip Hensher brings us another slice of contemporary life, this time the peaceful civility and spiralling paranoia of a small English town.
After the success of The Mulberry Empire and The Northern Clemency, which was short-listed for the 2008 Man Booker Prize, Philip Hensher brings us the peaceful civility and spiralling paranoia of the small English town of Handsmouth.
Usually a quiet and undisturbed place situated on an estuary, Handsmouth becomes the centre of national attention when an eight-year-old girl vanishes. The town fills with journalists and television crews, who latch onto the public's fearful suspicions that the missing girl, the daughter of one of the town's working-class families, was abducted.
This tragic event serves to expose the range of segregated existences in the town, as spectrums of class, wealth and lifestyle are blurred in the investigation. Behind Handsmouth's closed doors and pastoral façade the extraordinary individual lives of the community are exposed. The undisclosed passions of a quiet international aid worker are set against his wife, a woman whose astonishing aptitude for intellectual pursuits, such as piano-playing and elaborate cooking, makes her seem a paragon of virtue to the outside world. A recently-widowed old woman tells a story that details her late discovery of sexual gratification. And the Bears – middle-aged, fat, hairy gay men, given to promiscuity and some drug abuse – have a party.
As the search for the missing girl elevates, the case enables a self-appointed authority figure to present the case for increased surveillance, and, as old notions of privacy begin to crack, private lives seep into the public well of knowledge.
Handsmouth is a powerful study of the vital importance of individuality, the increasingly intrusive hand of political powers and the unyielding strength of Nature against the worst excesses of human behaviour.