Review

Changing attitudes towards love and acceptance

The Sparsholt Affair (above) is the sixth novel by author Alan Hollinghurst (left).
The Sparsholt Affair is the sixth novel by author Alan Hollinghurst (above).PHOTO: ROBERT TAYLOR, PICADOR (MACMILLAN UK)

FICTION

THE SPARSHOLT AFFAIR

Alan Hollinghurst

Picador/Paperback/454 pages/ $29.95/ Books Kinokuniya/ 3.5 stars

Looking out from a window one evening, Oxford University student Evert Dax glimpses David Sparsholt methodically lifting weights in his room and instantly falls in love.

Evert's crush - flippantly termed "the Sparsholt affair" by a friend - forms the basis for Alan Hollinghurst's sixth novel, which starts in the 1940s and stretches across three generations to the present day.

Pervading its pages is a deep sense of loneliness, which Hollinghurst seems to suggest is part of the experience of being a gay man.

His characters, for whom lust and love are closely intertwined, too often find their romantic relationships unsatisfying and their affections hopelessly misplaced.

The Sparsholt Affair (above) is the sixth novel by author Alan Hollinghurst (left).
The Sparsholt Affair (above) is the sixth novel by author Alan Hollinghurst. PHOTO: ROBERT TAYLOR, PICADOR (MACMILLAN UK)

Evert, for instance, is a literary man, "neat and hesitant" with an eye for fine art.

His love interest, on the other hand is a muscled young giant on the Oxford rowing team who proudly declares: "I've got no time for reading".

History repeats itself with Sparsholt's son, Johnny, who falls for a French boy called Bastien over the course of a summer.

The next summer, Bastien makes it clear that he is interested only in women. For him, Johnny is just a temporary diversion and outlet for his sexual frustration.

Hollinghurst's slow-paced novel is divided into four parts, with each separated by more than a decade.

Much that goes on in the intervening years - such as a scandal in Sparsholt's life - is left unsaid, with the reader expected to join the dots.

In the broad span of time covered by his book, Hollinghurst shows how attitudes towards homosexuality have changed over the years.

With this portrait of increasing freedom and acceptance, Hollinghurst holds out the hope that love, for the gay man, may not be so difficult to find after all.

If you like this, read: The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst (Picador, 2012, $20.72, Books Kinokuniya), about what happens when young poet Cecil Valance visits his Cambridge friend George Sawle at his family home.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2017, with the headline 'Changing attitudes towards love and acceptance'. Print Edition | Subscribe