A(nother) Review: The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

Way back, in the mists of time, at least as far back as 2004, I started working in a bookstore.

 

Me back then very different to me now. I was taking the path of least resistance. I could have ended up working anywhere, but as chance would have it… there were books.

 

I’d always liked reading, and I’d always wanted to write, but I didn’t love them then. They weren’t my passion.

 

There were a handful of books that put me on the path to where I am now, one of which was Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. It was one of the first ‘adult’ books I’d ever read. There was swearing and drugs and – gosh – even gay sex!

 

It was a coming of age novel, both for the characters and for me, so going back this year to read my first Hollinghurst since that day (for some reason The Stranger’s Child) completely passed me by) was very nostalgic.

 

While The Line of Beauty was very much a piece about being gay in the 80’s, The Sparsholt Affair is similar to John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisibile Furies as it explores the changing face of what it means to be gay across the years, starting during the second world war.

 

The book is rich with characters and we follow many of them from youth right through to death. The book is primarily told from the point of view of Johnny – although there are often guest POV’s – notably that of Freddie Green who carries the narrative throughout the 1940 section, a time when Johnny isn’t alive.

 

It all begins when Freddie and his friend Evert Dax spot the mysterious and beautiful David Sparsholt, a newcomer to Oxford in 1940 and a character that links all the others together, although we as a reader never seem to spend much time with him.

 

There are four distinct sections of this book – two of them work incredibly well, while the others are great pieces of writing, but don’t quite match up to the beginning of the book.

 

The first section is a powerful and erotic exploration of infatuation, and Hollinghurst’s writing is so vivid that I actually came away a little bit in love with David Sparsholt.

 

Fast forward a few years and our second section explores the life of the adolescent Johnny, a fourteen year old who is discovering his sexuality. The writing is equally engaging and will resonate with any gay man who was once fourteen years old.

 

As Johnny gets older, I started to become less affected with the book, the characters – so many characters – started to become less like real people and more like characters from a novel. Perhaps that was because he started to live a life that I couldn’t as easily identify with.

 

However, in his years as a younger man we watch him deal with his own infatuation, a nice juxtaposition to the 1940 section. Johnny is able to be more open, but he is seemingly much less successful. This is underscored by the object of his affections being in a relationship with the much older Evert Dax, the focal point of the 1940 years.

 

In Johnny’s later life, things seemed a little less tight, a bit meandering, but again, that may have been intentional as Johnny’s life seems to be headed in the same meandering direction.

 

The ending is… an ending. I’m not sure you could say it was a happy ending, or even a sad ending, but it’s definitely a nice point to end the novel.

 

I’m not sure what it says though. Was this a story about David Sparsholt? If so, making him absent for large swathes of the book seems a mistake. His arrival back on the scene in later years seems to promise answers and actually got me quite emotional at times, but because we don’t see things through his point of view, we don’t actually witness what was – to me – one of the more crucial scenes of the book.

 

The ending as it is, makes us reflect on the life of David Sparsholt, how things have changed and how they could have been so different… but again, it’s slightly undersold by his lack of presence in later pages.

 

The David Sparsholt we see at the end of the book is a completely different man to the one I became infatuated with in 1940 to the point it’s hard for me to connect the two men.

 

I loved this book, and I’m only being so critical because it was so nearly perfect, it was just lacking a little something extra towards the end.

 

However, I’d buy a thousand copies of this just to read the first half over and over again.

 

The Sparsholt Affair is published by Picador and is available now.

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A(nother) Review: The Feed by Nick Clark Windo

Let’s talk about chapters.

 

I know that’s not exactly the sexiest way to start a blog, but just be thankful I’m not spending a thousand words asking you to consider the oxford comma.

 

I’ve often wondered what the point of a chapter break is, and eventually I came to the conclusion that they’re almost exclusively used to help pace a novel.

 

Different books use them in differing lengths. Thrillers tend to use them every other page or so, which A) helps the more casual ready to pick them up and read one or two chapters in a sitting and B) psychologically helps invoke the feeling of a fast paced, page turning thrilling book.

 

The thriller in front of me on my desk is 522 pages long, a big chunky novel on first glance, but there are 127 chapters in it. With each chapter comes a page break typically between half a page and a full page long – that means there’s around a hundred pages worth of blank space in this particular book.

 

 The Feed by Nick Clark Window takes the opposite route and uses chapter breaks sparingly.

 

The story concerns Tom and Kate who start off the book in a world where everybody’s brain is connected to a feed – imagine twitter embedded into your mind – and one night, they daringly go off feed to have a romantic dinner where they actually talk to each other.

 

While off grid, the assassination of a major politician causes the government to shut down the feed for everyone, and massive panic ensues as a whole society is plunged cold turkey into a rehab they didn’t ask for.

 

The Feed doesn’t then quite go where you think it’s going to go, but it lets you glimpse a world that feels strangely familiar, a world where we are all addicted to social media, where our heads are always somewhere other than our bodies, where we take data in at a million miles an hour.

 

The desolate world that we arrive in following the removal of the feed feels like something straight out of The Walking Dead – a disparate group of survivors trying to build a new community only to run the risk that members of their new society might be taken over in their sleep by some other consciousness, one that arrives there through the now defunct feed.

 

The sparing use of chapter breaks frustrated me at first – I use them as natural stopping points, I can read sixty or so pages of text in a one hour sitting, but always like to stop at a natural resting point. With the first of only two chapter breaks coming in at page 114, I had to stop in the middle of the action on a few occasions.

 

On the other hand, the lack of breaks allowed me to live with these characters, take in their world at the same pace they were, which helped with the overall feel of the novel.

 

On reflection, there is just one moment where I would have liked a chapter break, a particularly dramatic moment which was slightly let down by not forcing the reader to take a breath and take it all in.

 

It made me think of the old omnibus episodes of EastEnders where the whole week was stitched together into one big episode. The mid-week cliffhangers always fell kind of flat, because they then rumbled on straight into the next scene.

 

The Feed is one of those rare things, in that while there are components that feel familiar, it is a wholly unique story that shows us a whole new world without getting too bogged down in extraneous detail. Nick Clark Windo is one to watch, and will be one of the more exciting debuts of 2018.

 

The Feed will be published by Headline in January 2018.