Alan Hollinghurst is not someone I would describe as a fast writer. His last novel, The Line of Beauty, came out in 2004, and beat Cloud Atlas – one of my most favouritest novels – in winning the Man Booker Prize that year. Unsurprisingly, this brick of a book was a favourite to win the Booker this year, and with good reason. I have no idea why it didn’t make the shortlist. While The Line of Beauty life me somewhat cold, this novel is truly excellent.
George Sawle has brought his friend from Cambridge, Cecil Valance, to the family house for the weekend. While here, Cecil writes a poem that, taken completely out of context, becomes one of the most loved British poems of the twentieth century. Following the ripples this poem causes throughout this century, we discover a world of lost opportunities, of lost love, and of
The first section is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever read. Hollinghurst’s slightly formal, very controlled, deeply English way of writing is perfectly suited to the Edwardian era, and building this first section around a summer garden party, complete with upper-class English people, gin and tonic, and sneaky make-out sessions in the grounds, is just perfect. Perhaps I’m just projecting my ideal image of “England”, but there is something here that really draws you in. George and Cecil’s attempts to, well, have some alone time while putting on a respectable front are funny, and Daphne’s attempts to get Cecil to take an interest in her – coupled with her complete obliviousness to the fact that, actually, she probably isn’t his type – are also nicely played. Indeed, the fact that no one seems to notice that George and Cecil are making out at every available moment is well done, particularly reading it from our perspective.
The friendship – well, relationship – between George and Cecil is pitch perfect, too. Cecil, so cocksure (no pun intended) is having far more fun that George, who clearly worships the ground Cecil walks on, to the extent that he doesn’t really see that Cecil is sometimes a bit of a pompous, self-important arse. George’s sister Daphne, too, is crushing on Cecil, though the fact that she is several years younger than him means he treats this as little more than a simple schoolgirl infatuation. Indeed, the poem for which he will be come famous, Two Acres, is intended as a love poem for George. The central, cruel irony of this novel, though, is that no one but George can ever know this.
Hollinghurst is uncompromising in his desire to focus on the small character pieces. Despite starting in the 1920s, and finishing in 2008, the important parts of the centre take place off screen, as it were. Instead, we deal with the ramifications of these important events with the main characters, away from the action, both physically and temporally. And as time goes by, new characters are introduced, and old characters are left behind. By the end, our only constant companion is Daphne Sawle, though even she becomes more tangential as the years go by. More than Daphne, this novel revolves around Cecil – even though he only physically appears in the first section. Somewhat like A.S. Byatt’s Possession, the latter parts of the novel deal with literary criticism, and historiography, and whether those of us left behind can ever truly work out what was going on in the minds of authors from long ago.
For those who are expecting the sensuality and physicality of Hollinghurst’s earlier works, you may be somewhat disappointed. There are no full-on scenes of man on man action – this time, he prefers to leave much of it unsaid. Indirectly, though, this is also a novel about the gay history of England. From the secret, furtive relationship between George and Cecil, to a relationship in the 1960s, cut in half by the revocation of the law criminalising homosexuality, to the final scene of a funeral for the husband of a gay man, Hollinghurst manages to remind us just how far the gay rights movement has brought us in just under one hundred years.
There’s so much going on in this novel, and I’ve barely touched on most of it here. Suffice to say, I very much enjoyed it. From the garden parties, to the boarding schools, Hollinghurst evokes an almost clichéd England. By populating it with characters who mean something, and feel something, though, he manages to make this one of the best novels I’ve read this year.