320pp, hardback, £16.99
Reviewed by Caroline Sanderson
The term ‘Hampstead Novel’ used to generate something of a literary hoohah. Searching for a definition online, I found it described as ‘a slow, self-consciously intellectual, dinner party novel’, and ‘a middle-class morality novel – probably involving adultery and shallow-masquerading-as-deep’. And somewhat topically– in the words of Margaret Drabble, a supposed proponent of the form– ‘an invention of the “Thatcherite press” ’. Ouch.
In the less sensational words of that thoughtful London writer Amanda Craig, however, the Hampstead Novel is actually ‘about people who live pretty much as we do, to whom things happen’. That description could certainly apply to Kate Clanchy’s entertaining debut novel, Meeting the English.
Set entirely in London NW3 during the long, hot and globally eventful summer of 1989, Meeting the English centres on the family of Phillip Prys, a playwright and novelist of some renown who has recently had a stroke which has rendered him paralyzed and unable to communicate. Attempting to cope with this cataclysmic domestic event are Shirin, his shining, much younger Iranian artist wife, his formidable ex-wife Myfanwy, and his two troubled children – Jake who has been sent down from Oxford for unacceptable conduct and possession of illegal drugs, and Juliet who is more preoccupied with her weight than her impending GCSEs. Then an unlikely saviour arrives in the shape of Struan Robertson, an academically brilliant seventeen-year-old orphan from a dour Scottish mining town. Seeking gainful gap year employment he answers an advertisement in The London Review of Books: ‘Literary Giant seeks young man to push bathchair.’
And the rest is Clanchy’s novel, which examines what happens when Struan – who has never in his life ‘been south’ – meets the English. And not just any English, but the eccentric Prys ménage of NW3 which appears as exotic and incomprehensible to him as a chattering class of tropical birds. And yet, miraculously, the ingénue but caring orphan boy from Cuik turns out to be rather good at sorting out everyone, as well as pushing bathchairs.
Clanchy extracts much wry comedy from the situation. She is particularly good on appearance and the clothes of the period, from Struan’s C&A shirt and unfashionable pleated trousers which give him a ‘strange sexless fold around the crotch’, to Juliet’s knitted pink dress and pouffed 80s hair clipped up in combs. And Clanchy evokes the hot and heady ether of 1989 beautifully too, from the background buzz of events in South Africa, Iran and Eastern Europe, to the Lloyd Cole & the Commotions lyrics, and afternoons spent sucking ice cubes and watching Flamingo Road reruns.
I so enjoyed this novel. I know this has a lot to do with the strangely co-incidental fact that in 1989 I too was freshly arrived in London from the provinces; working in a shop in Hampstead and grappling with the outlandish whims of its rarefied, intellectual residents. But by dint of its ‘stranger in a strange land comedy’ and keen observation of family dynamics, Meeting the English is more than a period piece. And it’s more than a Hampstead Novel. Whatever that is.