This new novel by Alan Hollinghurst is hard to categorise, and to its author’s credit, takes a great deal of contemplation to navigate. When trying to figure out what it is, it takes a sudden, steep turn into new terrain, growing in scope and in the volume of its themes and ideas. And it is, throughout, stunningly assured and superbly written carrying with it a thorough research showing a deep understanding of the three times in which its narrative gradually unfolds, contemplating sex, love and purpose in the most epic, while intimate ways.
It begins WWII-era Oxford, and culminates in modern-day London, and chronicles the worlds and experiences of a circle of friends, most of whom are gay men, who seem to have bee affected in one way or another by the impact of one man, David Sparsholt. Hollinghurst adapts a period-appropriate style to his writing in this section of the book, adopting all manner of suggestion and euphemism; everything is all-so indirect, implied… British.
In moves on then to Cornwall in 1965, where the Sparsholt family – everyone still very much turning a blind eye to one thing or another – is on holiday with their son, Johnny and his friend, a French exchange student named Bastien. Its in this section that Hollinghurst’s writing style becomes more modern, less stiff, and entirely touching given the ardent longing found in the mind’s eye of the young Johnny; so besotted with his French chum, who has just discovered girls and has no time for the furtive glances of his host. We move on to a comparatively forward thinking and open scene that is London in the mid 70s, lots of ascots and more overt campiness.
The thread that binds the tale together is that of relaxed attitudes towards gay life, and how its change over the years allows for a free expression from one subset of men, and a sense of longing and regret from the older chaps – opportunities lost. The ‘affair’ of the title is referred to, but in a strange (and a smarter reviewer than I would probably explain as to why its wise) move, Hollinghurst never fully explains it, or what it involved; more’s the point he has it as being a cloud hanging above David , and then later Johnny – the thing which defined them in public and continues to define them in private.
It probably takes someone who is gay, and has experienced the social transition from criminality to general acceptance and normalcy, to genuinely appreciate its broader impact and what the book represents. The final section, set in London in the early 2000s, seems to go about describing the young (gay) men today as being a bunch of vacuous ninnies. Eye of the beholder, all that.
The fact that it covers multiple decades makes it epic in itself – as does its considerable word count. But Hollinghurst makes it intriguing, gripping, and intimate; alternately sad and elevating, providing a deft insight into the lives of others we’re only now placing into the mainstream consciousness. It’s quite remarkable.
Now available, through Picador