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All in the family

  • Published at 06:08 pm November 5th, 2018
book cover

'The Friendly Ones' is nevertheless a reliable story of the complexities and absurdities that families inherit

For a realist novel, Philip Hensher’s latest, The Friendly Ones (4th Estate), is surprisingly absurd at times. Take the Spinsters, who live next door to the Sharifullahs: they’re all comically short in size; the older boy, Leo, has a friend named Tom Dick for some reason, and the patriarch of the family, the retired doctor Hilary, seems to take wicked pleasure in frightening his children with the announcement that he plans to divorce his wife of many years, who’s in the hospital, dying. 

The Spinsters have four children, of whom Leo tends to achieve the most notice. His extremely brief tenure at Oxford is described in strikingly nerve-wracking prose. Hensher documents Leo’s discomfiture and awkwardness with such stark realness that by the time we’re done reading the particular set piece, Leo’s speedy exit from university brings a relief not only to him but also to the reader, for whom it undoubtedly comes off as too real to experience in even print. 

Hensher’s The Friendly Ones is centred primarily around two families of neighbours: the Spinsters and the Sharifullahs, a Bengali family fleeing the coup ridden “Dacca” of the late 1970s.  The Sharifullahs’ stint in Dhaka, among their family and colleagues in turbulent times, during the liberation war is told mostly through a reimagining of Jahanara Imam’s Days of ’71. Hensher skillfully revamps the heartbreaking mother and son dynamic in Days of ’71 through Sharif’s youngest brother Rafiq and their mother. Even though Rafiq, being after all fictional, does not possess the same charisma as Rumi, Hensher manages to ignite in the reader the hostility most Bengalis would readily have for the war criminals of that time. 

A particularly distressing part in the novel concerns the killing of a professor who lived with the Sharifullahs. His murder, shown as being part of the December 14 killings of intellectuals, seems so outlandish in purely how the logistics of the whole scene is carried out that perhaps the book would’ve been better off without having this need to eagerly display every chapter of the brutalities that had occurred in 1971 then and there. 

The Friendly Ones is designed to generate entire clumps of differing sentiments in the reader. Done with the anguish of wartime Dhaka, Hensher concentrates on the life the Sharifullahs inherit after returning to Britain in 1975. Here we observe their relatively idyllic life pass by like a Jhumpa Lahiri story, where academically oriented middle class Bengalis explore “the West” in all their backyard lawn mowing and children’s house parties and casual prejudices. 

As we near the end of The Friendly Ones, Hensher visits the Spinsters again. But they had been gone for so long that it was hard to start caring for them again. Yet, the aging Hilary’s friendship with Sharif appeared to be genuinely touching. Both men’s fondness for an argument had made it possible for the two of them to connect in ways even their own families had failed. 

At times overwhelming, Hensher’s The Friendly Ones is nevertheless a reliable story of the complexities and absurdities that families inherit and have to live with for decades, where the differences no matter how big or small never fail to guarantee your right to return to the nest for a visit, even if it’s for one last time.