BOOKS: MAUPIN, HOLLINGSWORTH.
This new novel is similar in structure to Hollinghurst’s previous book The Stranger’s Child – it ranges over more than
70 years but jumps decades. This can be unsettling for the reader, yanked from characters and storylines they are invested in. It takes some concentration to identify the links with what has been left behind. This is especially true of the opening section here, set at Oxford University in
1940, a fascinating moment in history, atmospheric and suffused with a sexual tension that’s heightened by the World War II blackouts.
It’s here we meet the young, strikingly handsome David Sparsholt, who dazzles a circle of male friends. They spy on him doing exercises in his room and plot to encounter him, half-naked, in the communal bathroom or be rostered onto an all-night fire-watching duty on the roof with him. One of the group even persuades Sparsholt to pose for a nude portrait. Many readers would be content for the novel to continue in this Oxford storyline, but it doesn’t.
Instead, we jump more than 20 years, abandon almost all the characters we’ve been introduced to, and find ourselves on a coastal holiday in 1966. The new focus is the teenage son of David Sparsholt, Johnny, who is enthralled by French exchange student, Bastien. The previous summer in France the two boys had experimented together sexually, but Bastien’s tastes have moved on and are now fixated firmly on women. This section of the novel, like the first, is suffused with sexual desire, but Johnny’s covert longings and Bastien’s more direct intent are not all that is at play. In the background, something is going on with David Sparsholt and his friend Clifford.
This is the first of two sections to be told from the perspective of a teenager or child. It’s an interesting device; what the inexperienced narrator sees or hears is reported but it falls to the reader to “do the math”. It happens more explicitly later in the novel when a much older Johnny and his young daughter, out on a walk, encounter an old flame of Johnny’s emerging from a beat.
The Sparsholt Affair is not a novel for the reader who likes everything spelled out and underlined. Many of the major plot points occur off-stage or between chapters and it’s left to the reader to deduce what has happened from a few scattered clues. The scandal at the heart of the novel is never directly revealed. Instead, we are introduced to the main players on holiday, then the narrative jumps again, and we learn of what happened in the aftermath.
This is a novel that demands concentration and is best read as continuously as possible. There are a large number of characters to keep track of but the reward for the reader is the journey of discovery and revelation as we come to understand Hollinghurst’s purposes. It’s a novel of such complex construction that it deserves a second reading, equipped with the knowledge you’ve acquired from the first.