My review of Philip Hensher's Booker Prize-shortlisted novel The Northern Clemency has gone up at the Barnes & Noble Review. It begins thus:
In hell, the old joke goes, the cooks are British. To be fair, British cuisine has come a long way -- today there are Michelin stars to be found in England. But in 1974, the year in which Philip Hensher's domestic epic, The Northern Clemency, opens, culinary times were bleak, indeed. Consider the menu on offer at Katherine Glover's cocktail party:
... pastry cases with mushroom filling, and prawn, she'd made three different quiches, she'd made Coronation Chicken (a challenge to eat standing), she'd made assemblages of cheese-and-pineapple and cold sausages, she'd made open Danish sandwiches in tiny squares, a magazine idea, and they were eating it all. There were dishes of crisps, too, and Twiglets, but those didn't count in the way of making an effort.
Coronation Chicken can best be described as a sort of curried chicken salad, and Twiglets are packaged, Marmite-flavored snacks shaped like twigs. As exotic (and revolting) as much of this might sound to American ears, food is just one of the many effective markers Hensher deploys to situate his sweeping story of lower-middle-class British life through the tumultuous period of industrial upheaval that climaxed with the 1984 miners' strike (best known to American audiences as the backdrop of Billy Elliott) and witnessed the transition from an industrial to a service-based economy.
The entire review can be read here.