The Sparsholt Affair Alan Hollinghurst (Picador, £20)
SECONDS BEFORE the blackout curtains descend, a group of oxford students are mesmerised by the sight, framed by a still lit window, of a heroically beautiful young man lifting weights. This is David sparsholt, whose sheer straightforwardness—engineering student, fitness fanatic, fiancée from Nuneaton— fascinates the effete, arty set. Then, when one of them does him a favour, it’s repaid in the most surprising way.
The focus shifts to his equally handsome son, Johnny, who becomes a portrait painter but, somewhere along the way, sparsholt has become embroiled in an alluded-to-but-neverexplained scandal that results in imprisonment and a notoriety that will last until his obituaries are written. It will forever be known as ‘The sparsholt affair’, spawning endless public curiosity, theories and books in the manner of Lord Lucan, shergar and the Profumo affair.
as in his last book, The Stranger’s Child (2011), alan Hollinghurst tantalises the reader with an era and its engrossing characters—i would happily have stayed in 1940, so brilliantly were the halting niceties of the age conveyed— then, just when you’re ensconced, he flips on a decade or more.
It’s done with such a light touch that concentration is required to keep up, but there are plenty of clues—we know we’re in the 1960s when The Saint and quiz shows featuring John Betjeman are on TV, in the 1970s via the three-day week, blackouts of another kind and the baffling of the cook by the vegetarian, and in the present day thanks to dating apps. as with all Mr Hollinghurst’s novels, gay politics, though subtly handled, are never too far away.
at times, the book feels more social documentary than plot, but it’s so movingly written that you won’t be disappointed. Kate Green