DNA Magazine - - CONTENT -

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.



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