While on vacation I read Alan Holinghurst’s “The Line of Beauty,” his Booker prize winning novel from 2004. Last summer, I picked up his 2011 novel, “The Stranger’s Child,” which was famously passed over for the same prize. I chose it knowing nothing about the British author or the controversy that resulted from the Booker oversight. It reminded me of an updated E. M. Forster story…a bit of “Howard’s End” with gay characters.
It was Holinghurst’s prose that captivated me last summer but I read the novel like a starving woman at a banquet, too greedily. This year, I worked backwards in his oeuvre, reading slowly, savoring his enchanting cadences for all their beautiful antiquarianisms, with plans to read his 1994 book, “The Folding Star,” next.
Hollinghurst is an Oxford educated Brit whose prose garners high praise for its lyrical qualities. He, like his narrator, is Jamesian in way he turns phrases. This prize-winning novel is set in London in the 1980’s during the rise of the Tories under Margaret Thatcher. It follows a young, gay Oxford graduate pursuing his doctorate, whose thesis focuses on Henry James, as he navigates London’s gay community as it slowly emerges from the shadows. The novel also explores the era’s changes in class and status in London’s ruling class, along with the emergence of AIDS and the burgeoning drug trade.
Holinghurst’s novels are frequently explicit in describing gay sex. James Woods’ 2011 review of “The Stranger’s Child” described the novel as “circling around the suppressed and repressed gay experience.” In “The Line of Beauty” Holinghurst describes its narrator, Nick, coming of age in London in the 1980’s directly, without much circling.
The real story, though, explores class distinctions. Nick’s romantic partner is flush with new money, as well as political connections. He gets tut-tutted when he contracts AIDS but by contrast outsider Nick (think Carraway) gets bloodied so to speak – except that no one wants to touch him. The Tory MPs and Peers feel entitled to blame him, curse him and evict him. It’s the daughter, Old Puss, who ultimately tips the apple cart.
The theme of indulgence and self-indulgence runs through the novel, including every one of the main characters. But ultimately the outcomes for the aristocrats are temporary, like the parties and the travel they enjoy, while Nick and Leo, his working class lover, suffer fatal consequences.