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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

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