Caroline Moore

Distant neighbours

Philip Hensher explores the forming of friendships in a society complicated by differences of class, race and culture

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.

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