Eerily prescient, Hensher’s bizarre tale of a child’s disappearance on the outskirts of wealthy Hanmouth on the English coast speaks more to the evolution of societal interference than the eventual solving of eight-year-old China’s kidnapping. While the growing furor - and media feeding frenzy - illustrate the specific class differences between China’s distraught family (and unsavory parentage) and the pampered enclave that watches with alarm as reporters descend en masse upon Hanmouth, the fractures that exist among the residents are more subtle and historical. A network of generational relationships and gossip renders Hanmouth a melting pot of firmly entrenched beliefs and the private exercise of personal choices behind closed doors.
The problem of little China’s fate provides entry into the private lives of eccentric villagers: the friendly, if shockingly hedonistic gay couple, Sam and Harry, a cheesemonger and an aristocrat (“Lord What-A-Waste”); elderly friends Billa and Kitty, loyal attendees of the monthly book club; eccentric collage artist Sylvie; the self-important (and ubiquitously iconic) professor Miranda Kenyon and her cunningly wayward husband; the not-quite-welcome newcomer, Catherine Butterworth and her husband, Catherine excitedly inviting all and sundry to a party for her gay son, David (“We don’t know what we would do without him!”); and Hanmouth’s creeping menace, John Calvin, self-appointed director of the ever-more intrusive Neighborhood Watch with its plethora of CCTV cameras.
Hanmouth brews with diverse opinions and mostly-agreeable discussions, gossip and activities best enjoyed behind closed curtains, the personality of place firmly defined by Hensher, a master of levity and satire. The personal and private facades of Hanmouth residents are as dissimilar as the thin-lipped John Calvin and the ribald sexual celebrations of Sam and Harry’s special gatherings. Hensher’s unfailing wit bathes even the most appalling behavior with the ambiance of time balanced precariously between predictable past and paranoid future, where one’s private life is suddenly vulnerable to an Orwellian mindset oblivious to boundaries. Hanmouth’s fate is uncertain if hysterical in the moment, a remnant of past glory in danger of the bone yard as the demands of national security trump individual rights, intrusive cameras a common feature of modern life.
Hensher refuses to submit to the tyranny of the frightened. His bevy of eccentrics claim their voice whether likable or not, individuals all. The gays are riotously dedicated to their sexual adventures; grieving Catherine Butterworth struggles to accept an unexpected loss; Miranda lands on her feet in spite of her behavior. Even bratty Hettie Kenyon (yes, Miranda’s daughter) is redeemed, youthfully oblivious to the ominous fears that stalk the world.
A kidnapped child’s fate begins a dialog that veers crazily between idiosyncratic personalities and the fading impact of history as a rather ugly future nibbles around the edges of Hanmouth’s current drama. Still, rebellion lurks in the most unexpected places, the sparkling eyes of an elderly woman wielding an umbrella or the sharp-ended hatpin of a potentially twisted teen awakening to new romance and a future filled with surprises.