Hanmouth, situated where the Hand River flows into the Bristol Channel, is usually quiet and undisturbed. But it becomes the center 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 facade, the extraordinary individual lives of the community are laid bare. The undisclosed passions of a quiet international aid worker are set against his wife, seemingly a paragon of virtue to the outside world, while a recently widowed old woman tells a story that details her late discovery of sexual gratification. And a group of gay men, known as the Bears, have a drug-fueled party. As the search for the missing girl continues, the case is made for increased surveillance, and old notions of privacy begin to crack.King of the Badgersis a powerful study of the vital importance of individuality and the increasingly intrusive hand of political powers.
Hensher begins his ambitious tapestry with the disappearance of little China O'Connor from a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of fictional Hanmouth, Devon. Among the sympathetic English folk is the teenage Hettie, who conducts hilariously brutal trials with dolls given names like "Child Pornography," and whose sentencing involves hatpins and immolation. China's fate remains a mystery for much of the book, and Hensher turns to the raucous fun had by a group of unruly gay men in town and the overweight son of a family new to Hanmouth. Hensher's brilliance shines in the rollicking parties, sendups of provincial book clubs, and smug academic infighting; his scenes are well-drawn and hilarious. Lurking around the edges of the novel are larger questions about ceding privacy for the public good (a one-man neighborhood watch insists on more CCTV cameras with a slogan Orwell would have loved). Though the book clearly has no intention of being "about" a missing girl, the long sidelining of her thread was a risky choice and will surely test the patience of some readers. But then, just when you think it's safe to let your children play in the yard, Hensher offers a hint at China's fate with an icy control that is terribly disturbing. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
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Faber & Faber
September 13, 2011
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