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Eyes everywhere, seeing nothing.

August 31, 2011

King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher, Fourth Estate, $32.99

Reading Philip Hensher’s latest novel is a little like going for run with a throbbing hangover: unpleasant, but strangely rewarding.

Set in the ‘absurdly picturesque’ seaside town of Hanmouth, which is full of charming historic homes in pastel colours and well-to-do middle-aged folk who buy artisan cheese and take their monthly book club evenings very seriously, King of the Badgers is a maliciously witty indictment of modern Britain. When an eight-year-old girl, China—pudgy, unattractive, and hailing from a nearby council estate that dares to call itself part of Hanmouth proper—the town is thrust into a media frenzy.

Amid local gossip and police search efforts that are inevitably constrained by the red tape of ‘proper procedure,’ Hensher’s narrative jumps from resident to resident, painting a series of unflattering portraits that cleverly reflect the tenuous ties between their public and private selves. Respectable but dour Kenyon hides a passion that his overbearing academic wife, Miranda, can scarcely guess at; their sullen daughter Hettie plays solitary games with an antique hatpin and an assortment of savagely named toys; gay couple Sam and Harry prepare to host the latest meeting of the local Bears club for a long-overdue night of middle-aged carnal abandon; Catherine and Alec, cheerful newcomers from St Albans, introduce their son David’s alleged boyfriend as ‘David’s special friend’.

For much of the narrative, Kind of the Badgers isn’t so much about China’s disappearance as it is about Hanmouth and its charmless inhabitants, whose attempts to reflect the prestige of their postcode only expose the awfulness of their personalities. Hensher is a master of dialogue, and he recreates the idle chit-chat of kitchens and living rooms and chance street encounters with unforgiving accuracy. ‘Never knew a child could be both porcine and bovine at the same time,’ Sam observes of China’s little brother. ‘You can understand why they didn’t have him abducted. Wouldn’t have thought its face would tug at the heartstrings of readers of the Sun when they saw it’. Worse, for Kitty, is the thought that ‘the whole world now thinks of Hanmouth as being this awful council estate and nothing else, and Hanmouth people like this awful Micky and Heidi people. Absolutely everything you read in the papers is about how they live in Hanmouth and, frankly, they don’t.’

For those who do, the ever-watchful eyes of numerous CCTV cameras dog their every move, thanks to the efforts of local Neighbourhood Watch leader John Calvin: a tall, thin man, like ‘a painted wooden puppet,’ who talks in a bewildering and relentless parade of accents and impersonations.

But constant surveillance fails to capture Hanmouth’s sins; despite Calvin’s best efforts, what remains unseen to all but Hensher’s readers, who are admitted behind doors that cameras and neighbours never cross, is the most incriminating and revealing evidence of the town’s true character. Hanmouth is forever caught between appearance and reality—its tidy, relentlessly maintained veneer comes at the expense of its residents, who can never expose their real selves. It’s a state of affairs that perhaps applies as much to contemporary Western life as it does to Hensher’s fictional hamlet: though we watch constantly and are constantly watched, we seem to be relinquishing our freedoms and autonomy.

Ultimately, China’s disappearance is as much a part of Hanmouth’s constant obfuscation as the wild parties of the Bears or the hidden troubles of Kenyon and Miranda’s marriage. China’s family home is one that we never really enter—her story is perhaps more symbolic than anything else, a caustic reminder of the media sensations that we are all too frequently and briefly caught up in these days, eagerly absorbing information without ever knowing the truth. China is just another fleeting tragedy that quickly loses its appeal—before the case is resolved, ‘people of good taste had moved away from the subject’. In a dark twist, the reality of China’s whereabouts turns out to be far worse than we—and, indeed, the once eager eyes and ears of Hanmouth—could ever have imagined.

King of the Badgers might not offer a flattering portrait of modern society or modern Britain, but Hensher’s skill at capturing characters and place make the novel as entertaining as it is scathing. As he meanders his narrative through Hanmouth’s well-kept streets and homes, turning our eyes to the worst of their inhabitants’ inner lives, he forces us to recognise our own faults and question the hypocrisy of how we live now. Afforded a horribly unabridged view of Hanmouth that no camera could ever replicate, we perhaps only end up complicit in its deceit, as we watch and judge from the safety of our own false pedestals.

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