King of the Badgers

Philip Hensher, Author
Philip Hensher. FSG/Faber and Faber, $26 (436p) ISBN 978-0-86547-863-3
Reviewed on: 07/18/2011
Release date: 09/01/2011
Paperback - 436 pages - 978-0-86547-874-9
Hardcover - 436 pages - 978-0-00-730133-1
Paperback - 436 pages - 978-0-00-736423-7
Paperback - 436 pages - 978-0-00-730134-8
Ebook - 448 pages - 978-1-4299-6719-8
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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.)
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