‘Nothing matters very much,’ says Hilary Spinster, one of the main characters in Philip Hensher’s mammoth mêlée of a novel, ‘and most things don’t matter at all’. How true, we think to ourselves, how liberating! Is this the aphorism (borrowed from Lord Salisbury) that will finally pinpoint the Big Idea underlying the story? Given all the lives ruined by people making wrong decisions in these pages, it has been tempting to think something matters.
But no, Lord Salisbury’s bon mot pinpoints nothing. In the first place, there is no single Big Idea in The Friendly Ones. Hensher juggles many ideas from several cultures. He is a superb conjurer, but never an ideologue. In fact, Big Ideas are to be avoided in Hensher’s world. The Friendly Ones, those Pakistani murder squads that have given their name to the novel, had a very big idea indeed. In any case, Lord Salisbury’s maxim is clearly untrue, as are most of the adages both the English and Bangladeshi characters come out with in the course of their long, chatty lives.