the guardian Fri 10 April 2009
This epic novel (in length, if not quite as a stablemate of Tolstoy and Cervantes), about the everyday lives of Sheffield folk during the Thatcher years, was shortlisted for last year's Booker prize. If the judges had listened to the audio version, I can understand why. Without Carole Boyd, however, and her sympathetic, amused, multi-accented reading with its (let's not beat about the bush) overtones of Lynda Snell, I'm not sure I'd have stuck with it for 25½ hours without fast-forwarding. The Archers association isn't intended to denigrate. Millions of people love The Archers because they feel they know the characters so well, and believe me, by the end of this you'll feel the same about the Glovers and their new neighbours from London, the Sellers. Malcolm Glover works for a building society and dresses up as a roundhead at weekends with fellow battle re-enactment addicts. His wife gets a job at the local flower shop and 16-year-old Daniel Glover befriends Sandra Sellers, pilloried at school for her London accent. It's all pretty low-key, but little by little, as you get to recognise their foibles, their mannerisms and their friends, you genuinely want to know how things are going to turn out for Jane Glover, her kid brother Tim and sexy Sandra across the road. For the record, Jane goes to Oxford and then flatshares with Australians in Clapham, Tim becomes a political militant and joins the Yorkshire miners on the picket line, and Sandra emigrates to Australia. Hensher's interest in the 80s is social rather than political. Tim does meet Arthur Scargill, and there's a fleeting reference to the Falklands war, but it's the fabric of the time he relishes - the mushroom vol au vents handed out at cocktail parties and prized dining-room units featuring painted wood and smoked glass. I like his dialogue: the sarcastic teenagers, desperate housewives and loud Aussies. But then again, that may be Carole Boyd. Proust and Joyce are now joined by Hensher as novelists who should be listened to rather than battled through in print.