Alan Hollinghurst Pi­cador; $32.99

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - by Stephanie Bishop

of World War Two, the young David Sparsholt ar­rives at Ox­ford like some bright Ado­nis, “as if shaped from light him­self”. He is first spot­ted through a win­dow, just be­fore blackout, by a group of stu­dents gath­ered in a col­lege room. Sparsholt is lift­ing weights, the friends se­cretly ad­mir­ing his “glo­ri­ous head, like a Ro­man glad­i­a­tor” and the “blue veins stand­ing in the up­per arms”. In the tense at­mos­phere of “near­readi­ness for ac­tion”, Sparsholt quickly be­comes a fig­ure of in­trigue and de­sire. Al­though en­gaged, he falls into an af­fair with a male stu­dent. This open­ing episode is nar­rated in the first per­son by one of those who saw Sparsholt through the win­dow, and while we ex­pect this sit­u­a­tion to de­velop, the nar­ra­tive in­stead jumps ahead, land­ing us in a Cor­nish sum­mer al­most two decades later. Sparsholt is mar­ried and fa­ther to the ado­les­cent Johnny, whose per­spec­tive dom­i­nates the rest of the novel. In Corn­wall, Johnny is re­al­is­ing his own ho­mo­sex­ual de­sire, while his fa­ther’s re­mains hinted at but care­fully hid­den. Through a se­ries of nar­ra­tive eva­sions, we next en­counter Johnny in Lon­don in the 1970s. He is work­ing as an art re­storer when, by chance, he falls in with the same Ox­ford crowd that his fa­ther once knew. We learn that his fa­ther was caught up in a sex scan­dal prior to the de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of ho­mo­sex­ual acts in 1967 and in the af­ter­math of the Corn­wall episode. Johnny feels great shame in re­la­tion to this, but he is also idolised and pur­sued be­cause of the fa­mil­ial con­nec­tion. His life is charged by the sud­den open­ness of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary Lon­don, and this wave of change car­ries the novel for­wards across its re­main­ing three parts and into the near present, as we ob­serve Johnny un­der­go­ing a se­ries of lib­er­at­ing trans­for­ma­tions that none­the­less re­main per­pet­u­ally checked by his fa­ther’s ex­pe­ri­ences. For while moral at­ti­tudes al­ter sig­nif­i­cantly from the time of the scan­dal, Johnny can never wholly es­cape his fa­ther’s shadow. An un­cer­tain and re­served char­ac­ter, Johnny, like many of Hollinghurst’s lead­ing men, is a ner­vous out­sider – an ob­server of those who move with greater con­fi­dence and panache. Hollinghurst has long been cel­e­brated for his grand nar­ra­tive struc­tures and the Jame­sian poise of his prose. In The Sparsholt Af­fair these sig­na­ture fea­tures reap­pear, sup­port­ing the sub­tle de­vel­op­ment of Johnny’s in­te­rior life. Re­ly­ing on oblique strat­egy, the nar­ra­tive is marked by gaps and omis­sions. For this rea­son, The Sparsholt Af­fair lacks the nar­ra­tive drive of Hollinghurst’s best work, most no­tably The Line of Beauty. What we find in­stead is a more por­ous, airy qual­ity – one that el­e­vates sub­tle pat­tern­ing and am­bi­gu­ity, draw­ing at­ten­tion to in­escapable rep­e­ti­tions within the claus­tro­pho­bia of fam­ily life.

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