Picked up as an impulse buy (its proportions are pleasing – I liked the look and feel of it), The Friendly Ones has introduced me to a novelist who is undoubtedly going to become a firm favourite. I absolutely loved this novel, and its beauty is in the detail. We move between two families, swinging back and forwards in time, and this produces a highly layered narrative, allowing us to see characters from different angles. Some are sympathetically drawn, some are difficult to like, but all are highly believable. This is perhaps where it differs from the Victorian novels it has been compared to – there are no shortcuts taken with supporting figures – all, even those who would be so easy to caricature, such as the awful Enrico or Carole, an employee of Lydgate’s, are deftly drawn in a matter of lines, providing us with another perspective on the ideas of identity and what it is to be regarded as an outsider.
On a simple level, this is the tale of two families, seen over decades, who first come together during a family party being held by Nazia and Sharif. During the course of the sunny afternoon, their lives collide in dramatic fashion with that of the retired doctor next door, Dr Spinster. We learn that his wife, Celia, is dying in hospital and, as the novel continues, we meet his four children in turn. Dr Spinster has uneasy relationships with his children and seems to envy the neighbours their close family. His marriage is difficult and his behaviour towards his family has shaped their choices and lifestyles. For both families, the consequences of decisions made years ago echo throughout the novel, affecting those who follow.
The other family, Nazia and Sharif and their three children, two of whom were born in Sheffield, moved from Bangladesh in the 1970s. Sharif takes up the offer of a position at Sheffield University and the move offers him and his family an escape from the violence of the fight for independence. Later, in a brilliantly observed scene, he is the subject of racist abuse from a group of teenage boys who call him ‘Paki’ before he stands up to them, in a futile attempt to make them see just why this term is so problematic.
Not since Joyce Carol Oates’ sinister Arnold Friend has the word ‘friendly’ cast such oblique shadows. The phrase echoes throughout the novel, applied by different characters as they look for a sense of community or seek those they might be able to trust. Trust is not an easy thing to find in this novel, although it is there, often in unexpected places, and there is a good deal of warmth here too, usually in the sections concerning Nazia and Sharif’s family.
‘The Friendly Ones’ is also the name of the underground religious group in Bangladesh who inform on those fighting against the Pakistani forces. The scenes in Bangladesh are sometimes harrowing and a complete remove from the cosy domesticity of life in a northern English city in the seventies. Having lived briefly in Sheffield (before they finally return for good), Nazia and Sharif like to pretend they’re still there and after a very long sentence detailing the pleasures they found in life in England, they warm themselves with the mundane joys of a trip to ‘Marks & Spencer. There was a devout and amused silence … Their game was funny, and they both enjoyed it, but it had a knack of falling into a hole of disappointment.’ For the Spinster family, whose lives don’t involve clashes with military forces, disappointment is the main thing to avoid in life but Hensher doesn’t give easy rides. All that we can hope for in life is to find kindness, it seems, and it isn’t always where we expect to discover it. Highly recommended.