The Sparsholt Affair
by Alan Hollinghurst, Picador, £8.99
The immense assurance of Hollinghurst’s writing grips you as tightly as any thriller, as five interlinked sections, beginning in wartime Oxford and ending in modern-day London, follow a group of friends, mostly gay men, whose lives have all been affected by the charms of a handsome athlete named David Sparsholt.
I’d have been satisfied if the book had done no more than keep revolving the same constellation of longings and confusions, with the gradual relaxing of attitudes around sexuality operating as the principle of change. But it has more conventionally novelistic ambitions too. Sparsholt is caught up in a very English farrago of sex, graft and politics, involving an MP and a male prostitute, but Hollinghurst chooses not to bring this plot into clear focus.
Remarkably, the novel more than survives this slight letdown. We plunge forward into the 1990s with David’s son Johnny, a portrait painter. An amazing amount of the passion and folly of the human comedy is woven into his modest life. It makes for a looser, freer book than the cunning puzzle of a novel one was led to expect, and almost certainly a better one, too.