Readers should skim past the blurb of The Friendly Ones. The novel is about prejudice, of many different kinds; but this description might prejudice one’s reading:
The Friendly Ones is about two families. In it, people with very different histories can fit together, and redeem each other… by the decision to know something about people who are not like us.
That might suggest a saccharine narrative arc. A Bangladeshi academic and his family move in next door to a retired doctor in Sheffield, and prejudices are overcome, with various members of both families ‘making their different ways towards lives that make sense’ — a trite, Hollywood-style epiphany.
There is certainly something of this movement in the novel. Philip Hensher does not rule out the importance of human kindness, human gratitude and their ‘solid, banal, universal worth’. But what the novel explores is how difficult it is for friendliness to find expression in a world where universality is profoundly compromised — woven of multiple misunderstandings and multi-layered mutual impatience and ignorance, spun out of the divisions and imbalances of power between not only different races and cultures, but also different classes, genders and generations.
In this complex and compromised world, the ‘horror and shame’ of social gatherings loom large — whether it is Nazia, the Bangladeshi mother, trying to negotiate the mores of an English children’s party; or Leo, the Sheffield doctor’s son, trying to find his feet in an Oxford which seems to him dominated by braying toffs; or Josh, a sensitive boy forced to ‘play’ with a tormenting tribe of more privileged cousins.
In the middle chapters — easily the most brilliant and gripping part of the book — these merely social terrors are dwarfed by the back-story of the professor from Bangladesh, Mohammed Sharifullah, and his wife Nazia. They lived through the brutal military Operation Searchlight, in which Bengali intellectuals, writers, poets and academics were massacred by the Pakistani authorities in 1971 (the mass rape of Bengali women, designated as ‘spoils of war’, is ignored by Hensher). Collaborators with the Pakistani regime in these evil days called themselves, like the Eumenides, ‘the Friendly Ones’.
Sharif and Nazia are lucky. Sharif comes from a family of gentle, liberal but fiercely, joyously argumentative intellectuals. He had done his doctorate at Sheffield University; and in 1976 the faculty ‘welcomed him back with a morose, abrupt greeting that was how Yorkshire engineers expressed joy’.
The middle-class hardships faced in Sheffield by Sharif and his family, moving up the property ladder and learning that ‘some neighbours would be friendly and some would not’ are vividly and subtly evoked; but are rightly set in context when their daughter Aisha, who has garnered a first from Oxford and an MPhil from Cambridge, visits a house full of illegal immigrants in an unfamilar area of Sheffield.
The book opens in 1990 with Sharif and Nazia hosting a house-warming garden party: their next door neighbour, Dr Hilary Spinster, is up a ladder, ostensibly pruning his conifers, ‘a marginal and somehow disturbing presence’. Nobody knows whether, or how, to include him in conversation; but when one of Sharif’s twin sons chokes on a fruit stone, Spinster leaps over the fence and performs an emergency tracheotomy.
The image is disturbing — a white man with a knife at the throat of a brown boy — and recurs, a trifle heavy-handedly, throughout the novel as an image of racism. But the original episode is more interestingly ambiguous. It rapidly becomes clear that the family life of this ‘white saviour’ is in many ways inferior to that of the Sharifullahs. His four children are scattered; his wife is in hospital with cancer, and he is cruelly preparing to divorce her as she lies dying. Spinster is, says a (white) friend of his wife, ‘very supercilious and angry’. ‘Short men,’ she adds dismissively, ‘... very difficult in my view.’
All the Spinster family are tiny; all are plagued by a sense of their own inadequacies. The eldest son, Leo, drops out of Oxford: he is socially inept in a way that borders on moral and emotional dysfunction.
This is a novel spanning many decades, with a large cast of characters. Not all the strands are equally convincing. The more socially privileged classes verge on caricature. Leo’s even more diminutive sister, Blossom, is stunted as a character. She is not interested in university, only in social advancement (Hensher himself is undoubtedly a snob, albeit an intellectual one). A more sympathetic reading might have explored the hurt and damage caused by an awareness of intellectual inadequacy in such a family. Dislike of Blossom warps Hensher’s usually subtle ear for dialogue: ‘You really are the bally limit’ was rarely heard in 2016, even among the upper middle classes.
The novel’s portrayal of the changes wrought by time, however, is superb. Blossom apart, Hensher’s characters are properly unfinished, with faces which can ‘change over 15 years in more than physical incidentals’. Toddlers grow to young adults; and even the nicest of them become routinely dismissive of their elders, beating a ‘tactful retreat’ from argument: ‘If you say so’; ‘I expect you’re right’; ‘that’s an interesting point…’
It is Hensher’s superbly subtle awareness of the difficulties in the way of true engagement and true relationships that makes the late-flowering, gloriously argumentative friendship in this novel infinitely touching.