To Battersea Park by Philip Hensher review – a pandemic masterclass

Three years on, it remains difficult to think coherently about Covid-19 and the many ways it has changed us. A global pandemic, abstract and vast, rendered painfully real in the most intimate of ways; in freedoms curtailed, in relationships lost, in millions of bodies broken or buried. How do we tell the story of something we can’t see? Is there a legible thread that connects a set of experiences that differ so radically along lines of wealth, geography, health, politics, risk appetite and plain old dumb luck?

These interpretative challenges are at the heart of To Battersea Park, the surefooted and emotionally generous new novel by Philip Hensher. At first glance, it might seem late in the day to be adding to the already swollen ranks of lockdown novels, but Hensher’s treatment of the topic is both original and affecting. To Battersea Park is primarily concerned with how the mechanisms of storytelling might enable us to bear meaningful witness to the experience of the pandemic.

The novel consists of four sections, each named after a different narratological convention: The Iterative Mood, Free Indirect Style, The Hero Undertakes a Journey, and Entrelacement. Collectively, these techniques are used to present a fluid portrait of south London lives lived under varying degrees of pandemic-induced duress; a marriage straining at the seams, ailing parents, rapidly deteriorating mental health. There’s a confidence and playfulness to Hensher’s use of organising principles, with each convention interrogated via a number of periodic and knowing authorial intrusions. It’s a high-wire act, but ultimately a success, showcasing a philosophical humility. Hensher seems to face the task of telling an essentially untellable story by asking the reader: will this tool do the job? No? Well, what about this one? Still no use? … In that case, I’ll keep trying.

Rather than consisting of a unified plot, the four parts of the novel are loosely bound by shared geography and overlapping chronology. We see new habits forming in response to lockdown restrictions, slowly unravelling domestic tragedies, flowering violence, and acts of kindness in the face of vulnerability and failing health. There’s a rare and impressive level of control as Hensher handles this kaleidoscopic approach, moving deftly from the mundane rhythms of family life to the looming horrors of system collapse and back again. The overall effect is that of a high-end camera with a cracked lens; the picture may look fractured, but the zoom is still in good working order.

As the characters feel the pace of their lives slow, we see their responses to their immediate environment sharpen

The novel is perhaps at its strongest when it is dealing explicitly with the ways in which the pandemic altered our relationship to attention and the act of noticing. As Hensher’s characters feel the pace of their lives begin to slow, we see their responses to their immediate environment begin to sharpen and brighten. A curiosity develops; a desire to understand the natural and the built world around them. For those of us lucky enough to have felt something of that untethering in the early days of lockdown, it was a heady glimpse of a life lived at a different, less frantic tempo. Hensher captures this feeling brilliantly, lending the process a mythic, prelapsarian quality.

To Battersea Park is also excellent on the contingencies of illness and infection. The reader gets the sense of a complex tissue of cause and effect, connecting disparate bodies across space and time. Hensher handles this with some skill, often in the form of asides that are only rendered tragic by the reader’s knowledge of what is to come. A journalist’s professional pride feels like “the first itches of a fever tingling at his mouth”; later, the seemingly inconsequential contact of skin on surface is transformed into something heavy and ominous.

For the most part, the novel exhibits an admirable seriousness about the inner world of its characters, and is also particularly astute at the unfashionable art of observing the small differences in manner, speech and appearance that render people distinct individuals rather than representative types. This makes its occasional lapses into broad brushstrokes all the more jarring. The portrait of a leftwing ideologue unable to see the glory of New Labour and increasingly attracted to reactionary populism, for example, sticks out as a cheap shot in a novel that is otherwise impressively nuanced.

It’s hard to overstate how difficult writing a good novel about the pandemic must be. Who wants to hear all over again about how we took to baking bread and buying houseplants, about how strange some of the rules seem in retrospect, how unsatisfying it was to have our professional and personal connections mediated by Zoom? To Battersea Park is a serious achievement precisely because it takes this unpromising raw material – defined by repetition, limit and stasis – and makes something powerful and propulsive from it. It does so, ultimately, by being less a book about the pandemic and more a book about the stories we tell ourselves about the pandemic; billions of stories, fragile, partial, and essential, each one a small but vital act of reclamation and remembrance.

• To Battersea Park by Philip Hensher is published by 4th Estate (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.