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Henry Henry by Allen Bratton review – a Shakespearean tangle of hedonism and duty
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Henry Henry by Allen Bratton review – a Shakespearean tangle of hedonism and duty

The cast of Allen Bratton’s debut may sound familiar. Hal, the young heir to the house of Lancaster, wastes his hours in the Boar’s Head pub with his friends Poins and Falstaff. His father, Henry, tries to curtail his son’s bad behaviour, while seeking alliances that might shore up his troubled household. As the pair circle, enter Harry Percy, a dashing family friend who looks set to lock horns with Hal.

Names and themes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV echo through Henry Henry, which explores family, faith and aristocratic succession in 2010s England. Hal heads to pubs, kebab shops and parties, washing down cocaine with gin and beer. He is a rare visitor to the thinktank that nominally employs him, although he does manage to shuffle to morning mass and his father’s private members’ club, which he roguishly visits without a jacket and tie, so that the porter must dress him with whatever spares are available.

Percy, who smokes natural tobacco and has a five-year plan to be an MP, might not seem a natural bedfellow. Yet the pair flirt, with amiable hostility, and Hal heads to the Percy seat in Northumberland, a lodge in “one of those great British nowheres”, where a grouse-shooting accident leads them into a tempestuous romance.

Their fathers tut disapprovingly, but Hal is used to that. His mother died more than a decade ago, and his relationship with the quietly tyrannical Henry continues to define him. The duke treats his social inferiors with careful charm and his children with curt disapproval. Hal, the heir whose sexuality means he is unlikely to produce an heir, is at once Henry’s favourite and his greatest disappointment. Henry bullies and chides Hal, and darker cruelties emerge, giving Henry Henry’s privileged hedonism an unsettling shadow.

Bratton was born in the US but wrote his thesis on medieval English kingship. His novel begins with a bracing rush of bad behaviour before slowing as it digs into the tangle of guilt and duty that lies at the Lancaster family’s heart. Don’t come expecting a retread of Shakespeare’s Henriad: Falstaff is barely present, there’s little soaring rhetoric, and the fate of England is not at stake. This is a diminished house that clings to rituals and history, adept at keeping up appearances and confessing sins, but holding no real political clout.

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Their wealth has shrunk over the years from gargantuan to merely enormous, and Henry struggles to support a white stucco mansion near Buckingham Palace, a country house in Monmouth and six children on £500,000 a year. He calls the children to announce he is to remarry rich Frenchwoman Jeanne, which will shore up the family finances. And so his offspring are expected to behave at set pieces that froth with alcohol and barely repressed rebellion – a Christmas party, lunch in a wood-panelled restaurant, a wedding in Wales – while a confused but loved-up Hal negotiates his relationship with Percy, and starts to learn what happiness might look like.

Bratton observes up close, with a scientific focus on bodies in all their vigour and fragility. He is fascinated by the warmth people carry and the scents they give off, and writes about sex with matter-of-fact urgency, and hangovers with grisly verisimilitude. Vomit is expelled and cigarettes burn skin, while blood drips from Henry’s psoriasis-afflicted knees and Hal gets a perforated septum from cocaine use. Even the Lancasters’ possessions seem brittle, from cracked phone screens to peeling paint and tarnished silver.

A few forgettable discussions about social justice aside, Bratton isn’t terribly interested in giving this intimate upper-class drama a wider context. Off stage, the staff clean up smashed bottles and messy beds, and leave foil-wrapped pies in the fridge. Women are barely present, Hal’s siblings get limited stage time, and there is no working- or middle-class interloper to offer an outsider’s perspective.

Bratton writes about this rarefied milieu with a mix of fascination and dismay. There’s satire here, much of it subtle and some of it very funny, but the novel is primarily a sympathetic one about Hal’s attempts to come to terms with his own behaviour and his father’s legacy. Shakespeare’s Hal ascends to kingship; Bratton’s hero instead takes stumbling steps towards kindness. Henry Henry is far from perfect, and whether it stands or falls will depend on how interesting you find Hal’s world, but its deeply felt pages fly by.

Source: theguardian.com