Continuing in my attempt to catch up with the best part of a life time of not reading Booker prize winners, I recently finished, not without a fair amount of persistence, Alan Hollinghurst’s “The Line of Beauty”. Hollinghurst is a slow writer – he has only written half a dozen novels in total – and the only other work of his I have read is the “Swimming Pool Library” which feels like decades ago.
This novel is a leisurely portrait of the life of a rather pampered young man in mid 1980s London, when Thatcherism was at its most rampant and Aids was beginning to have a dramatic impact on the lives of gay men.
Nick Guest leaves Oxford and lodges with the family of one of his undergraduate friends, Toby. Toby’s father Gerald is a Conservative MP. Nick is a Guest in more ways than one – welcomed as a lodger, his homosexuality is acknowledged by the family but largely on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis. Their’s is a social liberalism that has some clearly defined limits.
Nick begins his sex life with a romance with a black Local Government worker, but his affection for Toby remains undimmed. In parallel the political life of the family father develops, culminating in a visit from Mrs Thatcher which is vividly realised – I wonder if this was all Hollinghurst’s imagination, or whether he was present at something similar. Nick them moves on to a clandestine relationship with another Oxford friend, who keeps up a front of heterosexuality, and introduces Nick to a cocaine dependency.
The third phase of the novel sees things all fall apart. Aids takes Nick’s first boyfriend, then his second, and again in parallel Gerald’s political career falters over a financial and then sexual scandal, something the conservative party seemed to specialise in in the 1980s. Finally Nick is thrown out of the lodgings he has enjoyed for far too long, and takes an Aids test which he expects to be positive.
As a portrait of gay privileged life in the 1980s this is probably the definitive work, for what it is worth. But the novel had other attractions for me. Hollinghurst is particularly good at the detailed nuances of social interaction – words and gestures are accurately dissected for their meaning. This isn’t just the fact with the wealthy – the visit to the black, evangelical family of his first lover, Leo, where his sexuality is quite literally the love that dare no speak its name, is captured perfectly in all its ambivalence.
i didn’t fall in love with this book – the central character is far too unlikeable and unsympathetic, almost narcissistic – and it didn’t make me want to turn to more of Hollinghurst’s works. The Booker short list for 2004 was weak by comparison with some years, although this novel did beat David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which by comparison was far more innovative and readable. But I was left admiring Hollinghurst’s craftsmanship, which is more than I can say for many of the other novels that have won the Booker subsequently.