The Sparsholt Af­fair

by Alan Hollinghurst, Pi­cador, £8.99

The Guardian - Review - - Out In Paperback - James Las­dun

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.

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