Philip Hensher’s King of the Badgers is set in Hanmouth, a small English coastal town described so thickly that it is established from the outset as effectively a character in itself.
Philip Hensher’s King of the Badgers is set in Hanmouth, a small English coastal town described so thickly that it is established from the outset as effectively a character in itself. Lovely to look at, the town is too small and insecure to be thought of as adult. In fact, it’s uncomfortably adolescent — a skittish concoction of class tension, shifting demographics and unwitting self-sabotage.
The novel is full of unexpected turns. It’s also brilliant, sustained and weirdly captivating. Thematically, it’s coherent: Hensher is concerned throughout with sex, class, surveillance, the keeping and violation of secrets. And yet it’s never quite clear what kind of novel you’re getting into.
Elements of it are inescapably — quite deliberately — sensational: an abducted child, a crazed gunman at a London train station, the grisly discovery of a murder. But for long stretches, these shattering events recede into the background, just as they would if we had read about them in the papers or seen them on television.
Instead, we are embroiled in the lives of Hanmouth’s middle-class residents, including a middle-aged gay couple, a retired colonel, an elderly conceptual artist (she makes collages from photos of penises), an outwardly straight couple with a teenage daughter (the father is carrying on a loving relationship with another man), and a well-meaning retired couple recently relocated to Hanmouth (they have a gay son who comes to visit).
Is it, then, a ‘gay novel’? Perhaps only in the same way that John Updike’s Couples is a ‘straight novel’: the acrobatics may be diverting (Hensher includes, for instance, a detailed description of a marathon gay orgy) but it’s hardly the first thing you’d say about it. (Come to think of it, you could almost see Hanmouth as a version of Updike’s fictional Tarbox transposed to conflicted, class- ridden, media-addled England. The town and its characters are described with a similar descriptive intensity and from a similarly detached, omniscient point of view.)
The odd thing is that, far from being a problem, the book’s refusal to conform to genre turns out to be a great source of suspense and interest. Whatever is going to happen next, it’s not what you think.
Ultimately, of course, it’s the writing that carries King of the Badgers. Hensher, as in all his writing, is sharp, wry, audacious, exact. Some scenes are heartbreakingly brief and marked by poignant restraint. Others are described in extraordinary detail, and peppered with piercing, oftentimes hilarious commentary. An early evening gathering of neighbours for drinks, for instance, is made to feel as comical and excruciating as a Ricky Gervais monologue, without Hensher ever having to step outside the bounds of fictional realism.
And his dialogue is brilliant. Referring to the chilling abduction of a girl from the local council estate, one character says:
The thing I truly object to, and I know this sounds trivial and I don’t care if it sounds a bit snobbish, but I don’t care about these awful people and I do care about this. It’s that the whole world now thinks of Hanmouth as being this sort of awful council estate and nothing else.
The gear shifts and lane-changes — from comedy to horror, from restrained affection to barely restrained disgust — keep you alert. The whole book, in fact, is an exercise in alertness — in noticing, in empathy uncompromised by sentimentality — set against a culture of amnesia, of deception, of self-absorption and fear.