Thu, 29 Aug 2019
THE Friendly Ones by Philip Hensher is primarily set in Sheffield and centres around neighbours – a retired local GP Hilary Spinster and Nazia and Sharif, Bangladeshi immigrants.
It begins in the late 1980s with a family party at Nazia’s and Sharif’s, a bustling, jolly affair that immediately creates a picture of the aunties and uncles and cousins all joining in the festivities.
Next door, Hilary Spinster is gardening, while his terminally-ill wife lies in her sick bed. A dramatic incident during the party brings the two families into contact with each other and the stage is set.
Hensher then concentrates on the Spinsters. We are introduced to the four children and are given their back stories, as well as their relationships with their parents. It’s a brilliantly-portrayed insight into a seemingly normal family, who are actually completely dysfunctional – their eldest son Leo’s experience at Oxford and the subsequent effect on him is fascinating.
We are also introduced to the next generation as young children and will later see how they cope with adulthood.
Having thoroughly immersed the reader in the lives of the Spinsters, Hensher changes tack and concentrates on Nazia and Sharif.
Surprisingly it doesn’t jar, because the impact of the opening scene was such that these characters are still vivid in the readers’ minds.
We are taken to Bangladesh in a brutal and vividly realistic telling of the horrendous suffering and betrayal of the family – we also find out the meaning of ‘the friendly ones’ of the title – a shocking misnomer.
Hensher then yo-yos between all the characters as we lurch into the present day and a party for Dr Hilary who is celebrating his 100th birthday.
There are so many layers to this book. It is a saga packed with fully-rounded characters and many smaller stories within the story arc – some of which are sad, some amusing, some appalling, but all intertwined with these seemingly disparate lives to create a slice-of-life tale that highlights unwitting prejudices and assumptions and shows how they can change lives, for better and for worse. It is ultimately a story of redemption – there are some genuine ‘friendly ones’.
A longer read at 600-plus pages, but I would recommend it if you like to immerse yourself in a story that is rich in character and packs a bit of a punch.