One of the difficult tasks when writing fiction about the recent past is to let the reader know the approximate year in which the action is taking place without giving the impression of scene-setting. A mediocre novelist will cram the early dialogue with clunky references to Ted Heath’s chances at the next election or the BSE crisis, before allowing the political talk to disappear once the desired effect has been achieved. Philip Hensher, at the beginning of this novel, provides his setting with great economy, not through dialogue at all but through a single object: a cocktail stick pinioning a combination of diced cheddar, pineapple and sausage. Once that unholy trinity of sweet-savoury kitsch has appeared, this can only be middle England in the 1970s.
The snack is served at the Glovers’ Sheffield house during a party thrown for the neighbours. The Glovers are comfortably off and unsophisticated. Malcolm works at a building society and takes part in battle re-enactments; until recently Katherine stayed at home, looking after Malcolm and their children, handsome, uncomplicated Daniel, adolescent novelist-manqué Jane and the youngest, Tim, a strange child who recently bought a pet snake which he hides in his room. Lately, Katherine became frustrated with her life and took a job at a fancy florist shop, where she fell for Nick, her boss.
Across the road the Sellers family, Alice, Bernie and their children, Sandra and Francis, arrive from London, and the two families’ lives intertwine. Alice becomes Katherine’s confidante, while Sandra becomes one of the few girls whom Daniel befriends without trying to bed. Sandra is not coping well with the journey to womanhood; she exposes herself to an adult neighbour, and later encourages ten-year-old Tim Glover, many years her junior, to fondle her breasts.