After the success of The Northern Clemency, shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize, Philip Hensher brings us another slice of contemporary life, this time the peaceful civility and spiralling paranoia of a small English town.
Hanmouth, situated where the river Hand flows into the Bristol channel, is usually quiet and undisturbed. But it becomes the centre of national attention when an eight-year-old girl vanishes. This tragic event serves to expose the range of segregated existences in the town, as spectrums of class, wealth and lifestyle are blurred in the investigation. Behind Hanmouth's closed doors and pastoral façade, the extraordinary individual lives of the community are laid bare.
The reviews out so far describe Hanmouth - some of the blurbs call it Handsmouth - the setting for this barbed analysis of the underbelly of an English town, as:
... an imagined town in Devon ... Hanmouth, on an estuary, is now a town to which people retire. It has fine streets full of handsome houses and there are small specialist shops, like the cheese-shop kept by Sam. But on its fringes there are housing schemes inhabited by a very different class of people. So while there is comfort, there is also social tension.
- Book review: King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher, Allan Massie, The Scotsman, 18th March 2011
... and ...
There’s a class struggle of a very English kind going on in Hanmouth, a small Devon town near Barnstaple.
Residents are becoming increasingly resentful of the fact that, whenever Hanmouth is mentioned, the image that springs to people’s minds is not the lovely coastal village itself but rather the grim council estates up the road.
When a young girl disappears, in a plot-thread inspired by the Shannon Matthews case, suspicion falls on the mother, a hairdresser in her twenties with four kids by different fathers and a yobbish partner. The consensus among the more well-to-do residents is that they’re “both deplorable and beyond genealogical analysis”. This casual snobbery is our introduction to the people of Hanmouth, a group we get to know in great detail in this highly effective snapshot of contemporary Britain.
This village is no Brigadoon. In Hanmouth, preparations for a drug-fuelled gay orgy are as meticulous and tediously domestic as for a suburban dinner party. In fact, despite the largely ageing population, no-one has lived there for long enough to remember the death of another young girl 30 years earlier. The town is, in effect, populated by transients who are trying to make a community without the benefit of local roots or long acquaintance.
- In Middle England’s dark heart, Alastair Mabbott, Sunday Herald, 20 Mar 2011
This could describe any number of south-west estuary towns, and I'm sure Hanmouth is a portmanteau. But despite the nominal North Devon setting, the tale from my informant was that it was especially applicable to Topsham.
Addendum. By the way, Nick Curtis's Evening Standard review - King of the Badgers gives a Middlemarch-style overview of a community - says the title "refers to a character in JP Martin's children's books about an affable millionaire elephant, for no reason I can discern". I suspect that it's more subtle than that. Since the book explores secret lives, it may well connect with The mysterious case of Mr Davies and the badgers (Philip Hensher, The Independent, 11 March 2003). The term also appears to have criminal connotations, as it was an epithet of the Max Shinburn aka Max Shinborn, a notorious criminal mastermind of the late 19th century.