I’ve found a book

IMG_2033 At the beginning of The Northern Clemency, a novel by English writer Philip Hensher, Francis is nine. His father announces that he’s found a house. “‘I’ve found a book,’ Francis wanted to say to complete everyone’s happiness.”

Late in the novel, an older Francis is packing for a trip. As I do, he spends more time on choosing what books he will take than on choosing his clothes. He has, as you will see, also become a writer, and in more ways than one. This quote mentions many of the issues in recent posts, including favorite pens, whether or not we separate the books we’ve read from the books we haven’t, as well as a unique approach to the books we have yet to read.

“Most of the books on the shelves were old ones, favourites from his childhood…But others were fat books he’d read, had always meant to read, had been saying to himself so long he had read them that he believed they had actually been read. He packed The Idiot; he packed Dead Souls…Francis took out the half-finished bulk of his own book, eight inches thick, an A4 notebook with black binding and three green Pentel pens. He’d always used those Pentel pens; he liked the flow of the ink-soaked ball under pressure.IMG_2031

The book was the third novel Francis had written. He had sent the first out; he had sent the second out; he rather thought he would finish this one and put it back into his drawer.”

The Northern Clemency is about two English families who, shortly after the novel begins, live across the street from each other in a small neighborhood outside London. It was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

Each of its 597 pages is compelling because of Hensher’s ability to go deep into the ways families operate:

“Everyone did their best to be cheerful, talking around rather than to Sandra, and by the time they had finished [eating], they could look directly at her.”

“She [Jane] didn’t mind being told things more than once: it was a signal that everything was all right in the world.”

At least part of the reason he’s able to go deep into the lives of these families is that he goes deep into the life of each member of the families. Also, he takes his time with each moment in the story. Notice his attention to detail.

“She [Alice] sat in the warm pool of light cast by the green-shaded Tiffany lamp over the green-topped leather desk in the spare room. With her father’s fountain pen, on the heavy embossed Italian writing paper Francis had given her last Christmas, both saved for special occasions such as a letter to Sandra, she went on writing, perseveringly.”

Philip Hensher does not have a writing room, nor does he want one. He usually writes on the arm of a sofa, in a hardback A4 notebook, just as his character Francis does.

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4 thoughts on “I’ve found a book

  1. On my fifty thousandth re-write, I am focusing on attention to detail: taking my time with each moment in the story. My writing moves too fast and bumpy. I need to read books like this one to encourage depth and scene setting.


    • Tricia, my fifty thousandth re-write is exactly where I try to focus on the moments.

      Someone (I think Dani Shapiro but probably many people) said that the important unit of time for fiction is the moment.

      Mary Gordon said (in one of my workshops) that first we needed to identify the important moments in our story or novel. Then we need to “saturate them” by describing the details, the surroundings, the physicality, that make that moment fully present to the nerve endings.

      I love rereading my notes. I get something out of it every single time. Don’t you just love writing?


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