King of the Badgers

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King of the Badgers, Philip Hensher, book reviewKing of the Badgers by Philip Hensher is set in the fictional Devon town of Hanmouth. It is a large book which addresses large themes, in particular loss of privacy and the intrusion of authority and the media into every aspect of how we live. I was reminded as I read the book of a soap opera; some of the events it portrays are clearly based on high profile real life events which have been played out in the full light of press and television scrutiny in recent years.

The starting point for novel is the disappearance of a young working class girl, presumed to have been abducted. While this storyline continues to run through the book, it mainly provides the background against which a wide range of characters in the town live out their lives and interact with each other. They lead superficially respectable lives but hide a range of secrets which are revealed by the author to us as observers of events. An adolescent girl with a collection of sinister dolls, a gay couple who run a cheese shop, a group of academics at a third rate provincial university, a frustrated writer of nonsense English slogans for the Chinese consumer – all play their part. And overseeing events (literally in many cases) is a mysterious neighbourhood watch group led by John Calvin. I found Calvin irritating in a number of respects, but he has an important symbolic role to play in the novel and his name and characteristics are clearly chosen for a good reason.

This is a comic novel, though some of its themes are very dark. Like most novelists, Hensher writes about things with which he is probably familiar. His description of academic life has apparently offended some of his real life academic colleagues, although anyone who is used to working in this sort of environment will recognise the truth of the types he describes. A prominent role is played by various gay characters, and a chapter devoted to a gay orgy which will not be to every reader’s taste. Some of the events described are terrible, but the tone is generally light. Overall, however, this is a well written and enjoyable book. Hensher is particularly successful in giving the wide range of characters distinctive and convincing voices. They seem alive and real, and as a reader I cannot give much higher praise. Although this is a long book, I never tired of it. It is constantly amusing, and the twists and turns are difficult to predict. Hensher’s previous novel – The Northern Clemency – was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. King of the Badgers shares with it a desire to address the state of the nation, though in a different area. It seems to me an equally strong book and one well worth reading.


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King of the Badgers
by Philip Hensher

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Written by Ian
Ian

Ian is a medical academic with a long standing interest in books, particularly literary and crime fiction, as both a reader and a collector. He has published extensively in the scientific literature, mainly on nutrition. He has two grown-up children and lives in Ireland.

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