Fever dreams and dystopias

To Battersea Park Philip Hensher Fourth Estate, £16.99, pp304 The All the Devils Are Here: Alex Preston






the first Covid novel – Ali Smith’s turbocharged two and a half years ago. Sarah Moss’s The Fell Burntcoat the narrative potential of pandemic and lockdowns. Hensher, though, has done something rather different and more precarious: written a book that is really a collection of novellas engaging in more or less autobiographical fashion with his experience of Covid. I say precarious because the book feels as if it comes both too soon and too late, landing at a time when the world wants more than anything to move on from a subject that brutally colonised our lives for so long. In the novel’s fourth and final section, Hensher writes of contracting the disease in the winter of 2020 and becoming disoriented. He checks his temperature, his oximeter; he is taken to hospital. We are with him in his aphasic fever dream. It is not that I don’t have sympathy for Hensher – it sounds like he had a bad time of it – but I read these pages with something approaching embarrassment. We all went through this, we were all at the centre of dramas that followed very similar paths. The ubiquity of the experience renders it tricky material for autofiction. Hensher and his husband recovered, he was able to return to his lockdown life making buckwheat rolls, gardening, imagining the lives of his neighbours. We all read and thought about Covid more than enough in those lost years; Hensher writes of his disease with typical grace and precision, but there is not enough to make the reader feel that they are gaining new insights or altered perspectives. Luckily, there are other sections of the novel that see Hensher on much firmer ground. The book’s four parts journey from the autobiographical to the speculative and back again. We start in lockdown, with the author and his husband kicking their heels in Battersea. Hensher dwells intimately over the texture of his circumscribed existence: “The world we were limited to by decree of the State, this garden and the house we lived in, had grown in the mind, and nothing was too small to look at, to name or rename, to contemplate.” There are passages of beautiful writing. Roses open “like wind-filled blouses on a line, the cream, the crimson, the opulent flurry with which the yellow in bloom flavoured the air by the kitchen door”. There are characteristically Hensherian flourishes. Traffic grumbles “like a sixty-four-foot organ stop played pianissimo in an empty cathedral”; greenflies on his roses are “pretty as they feasted, those pests, the summery inner luminescence of G major within their little bodies”. The second section widens the lens. We dip in and out of the minds of the author’s mother, suffering from dementia; his father, constructing model railways; a builder and his wife whose fractious marriage will have enormous, if indirect, consequences for the author. Hensher has always been a master of family dynamics: here, the narrator, whom we presume to be Hensher himself, picks apart his own family – the mother lost in her own mind, the anxious father, the ghastly sister. We understand the contingency of the world at the peak of the pandemic, the way that small actions had vast repercussions. Next, in a section entitled The Hero Takes a Journey Away from His Environment, we are whisked to a near-future dystopia. Quentin, gym-buff and self-confident, finds himself on a new-build estate in Whitstable. The country has broken down under the weight of wave after wave of Covid. Violent, feral youths roam the land – the “life-to-come boys”. Quentin receives a letter from his father, a dentist in Ramsgate, some 20 miles away, and decides to walk and visit him. He’s joined by a young man called Simon, the child of a neighbour, who speaks like Mr Darcy after “repeated viewings of period television dramas”. It’s like Road meets Philip Hensher’s vision of the Kentish coast is ‘brilliant and brutal’. Karen Robinson/ Observer the journey is electrifying, Hensher’s vision of the Kentish coast brilliant and brutal. Then we return to Battersea, to the ailing author. Here, though, his story is interwoven powerfully with that of a family across the road; Hensher’s ill health is mirrored in a very different kind of sickness, a malaise that will not respond to oxygen or intubation. Last week the Observer published a feature on the pleasure of short novels. The third section of this book – Hensher’s Covid dystopia – is a masterful novella and it’s a shame this wasn’t published as a stand-alone piece. Its success perhaps lies in the fact that it’s the least inward-looking of the various parts that make up the novel. At a time when we’ve all had too long staring at our navels, there’s a hunger for works like this that allow the imagination to roam wide and wild. To order To Battersea Park for £14.95 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837