When Philip Hensher was a child his family would set off for English holidays at 5am, his mother packing a camping stove and frying pan so they could stop at a picnic place and cook breakfast. "I have no idea why we did this – but it wasn't like we were so poor," he recalls. "And then, one year, Mum forgot – and it's become a little vignette for me of my childhood, The Year Mum Forgot To Take The Frying Pan. It's somehow turned into something extraordinarily significant in the whole panorama of growing up."
Hensher, now 53, admits he has no idea what the frying pan incident actually means. But he suspects that family life never stops being interesting for writers, simply because everyone has their own version of it. Snapshots of family events build into the stories we tell about ourselves and each other – which is very much how Hensher's new novel, The Friendly Ones, works. A series of detailed portraits of events in the lives of two neighbouring families in Sheffield – one English, one Bangladeshi – gradually layer over the decades into a tale of tragedies, friendships, war, estrangement and, well, life itself.
“It does have a large cast of characters, with a lot of people coming in and leaving again,” Hensher admits. “So to give it any kind of coherence I had to have these flashes of contained stories as well as those long overarching themes.”
One of which is quite obviously the immigrant experience – which is where it differs markedly from his other novel about Sheffield families over recent decades, The Northern Clemency. At the very beginning of The Friendly Ones, Nazia and Sharif are holding a garden party to celebrate moving into their "forever" home. Next door, Hilary Spinster, a former doctor, looks over the fence and is forced into a course of action that will bring the households into closer orbit. It's the level at which these families with two very different histories can coexist that bubbles away under the surface of the novel.
“In England, we devote a lot of time to the question of how we are going to incorporate and relate to all sorts of people who have histories in different parts of the world,” Hensher says. “It seems like a much more urgent question now, too.
“I’m married to a Bangladeshi and I admit that before we met my sense of Bangladesh was the mid-1970s famines that crossed my path when I was a child. I might have had some sense of political troubles and I knew that there were a lot of Bangladeshis in England – who basically ran the Indian restaurant trade.
“But you can’t spend time with intellectual Bengalis without hearing a lot about the War of Independence in 1971. It certainly became a central concern of mine in this book because the injustice and genocide is so overwhelming. You realise quite quickly that history and the events of the past is very central to their experience. There are still people who you wouldn’t have in your house because of what they did during the war, or what their fathers did.”
Hensher says learning about Bangladesh forced him to think about how white English people like to think they've assimilated immigrant communities into national life, but rarely hear their stories. In the novel, Hilary's son Leo awkwardly gets into a conversation with Nazia and Sharif's daughter Aisha – born in Sheffield – about her history. "It's all right," she says, "you can ask where my family come from, being brown and all that."
“It’s a crucial part of the book,” says Hensher. “But then white English people are pretty confused about this: they’ve understood that it’s offensive to ask someone who is black, Asian, Chinese, Bengali or whatever ‘where are you from?’, because they will obviously say Birmingham, London, Sheffield.
“But I don’t think anyone would take offence if they were asked where their family was originally from. That’s perfectly reasonable and would be welcomed, as long as it didn’t come with the inference that they didn’t deserve to be here. So Leo is quite typical, but the net result is that Aisha’s parents’ story doesn’t really get heard at that point.”
And their story is incredibly painful, taking us back, in the second half of the book, to the War of Independence, and bloody betrayal: The Friendly Ones title not only referring to the emerging relationship between the Spinsters and the Sharifullahs, but the wartime collaborators who worked against the cause of independence by reporting rebels to the Pakistani authorities.
Surprisingly, for this section of the book Hensher didn't bury himself in research, relying instead on his Bengali friends, and a memoir by activist and writer Jahanara Imam, Days Of 1971. Her son was taken away, tortured and never returned, and Imam mentioned his murderer by name. Hensher repeats it, and details of the story in The Friendly Ones.
"The danger in too much research is that you start to become more omniscient than your characters," he explains. "But I did take some things from Days Of 1971 because the actual details of a son being taken away to be tortured to death is not really where I wanted to start exercising my irresponsible imagination. I wanted to get it exactly right – including the name of the officer who took him away."
Hensher is unapologetic about doing so, even if there’s the smallest possibility of a legal case.
"People did ask about libel laws and I just thought 'bring it on'. His name's being circulating in Imam's memoirs for 30 years anyway, so you just have to point the finger. Some aspects are beyond belief: there is an official government report on the War of Independence and it's an incredible piece of fiction, suggesting that the killings were by Bangladeshi freedom fighters murdering their own families. It's horrific."
And yet Hensher never resorts to heavy-handed polemic. Instead, there’s a really neat balance to the two strands of the story, the two families and their disappointments and achievements. Even when they’re arguing, as Hilary and Sharif do, the tone is perfect.
“They enjoy the intellectual jousting, and that was actually the big discovery in writing the book,” he says. “I couldn’t work out for ages why the relationship Hilary had with his family was so dysfunctional, or what Sharif and Nazia were going to do for him. And then I realised – he wants someone to argue with properly, rather than just tell him ‘if you say so’.
"And then I realised that Bengalis love an argument too. The energetic conversation on points of principle is embedded in their culture and if they don't have one for three or four days there's something missing. So it was a wonderful moment when I realised that everything was set up for them to have an argument. And at the end of the argument … they were going to feel so much better."
Which means, as the reader gets to know this giant cast, there will be people they agree with, empathise with, and really can't stand. That's the point to The Friendly Ones: it revels in difference. Hensher likes the fact there will be opposing viewpoints for his readers, given he has a kind of mission statement for the book.
"I wanted it to be understood that The Friendly Ones is always saying 'I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that'," he smiles.
And the complications, the entanglements, the snapshots of everyday life and what they might mean is what makes The Friendly Ones so vivid. As for the frying pan story, it'll have to wait for another book.
The Friendly Ones (Fourth Estate) is out now