In the summer of 1983, Nick Guest graduates from Oxford and goes to lodge with the Fedden family at their affluent Notting Hill home. It is the start of a journey which will take him into the world of high-level Tory politicians, big business and the London gay scene. Readers who were there will no doubt find themselves pondering the authenticity (or otherwise) of Hollinghurst’s portrayal of Thatcher’s Britain, while others may feel they gain an intriguing glimpse into previously unknown territory. Most importantly perhaps, the novel gives a unique insight into the insidious and devastating way AIDS impacted the lives of young gay men during the 1980s. It also reminds us how rare, even today, are truthful and explicit accounts of male gay experience in mainstream English literature.
The characters in The Line of Beauty are many and varied, and are certainly what Gerald Fedden (the ambitious Tory MP who becomes Nick’s landlord) would describe as ‘great fun’. There is a strong satirical edge to the writing, and very few characters escape unscathed, with the exception perhaps of the protagonist. Nick’s compulsion to reveal his encyclopaedic knowledge of every aspect of high culture, his bemused condescension towards those less well-informed than himself, and his penchant for questions like, ‘That Louis Quinze escritoire ... is an amazing thing, sir, surely?’ would probably benefit from a slightly more tongue-in-cheek approach. Indeed, while enjoying the author's humorous treatment of individuals who don’t know their Caravaggios from their Carpaccios, or their John Berrymans from their John Betjemans, many readers will no doubt find these individuals slightly easier to identify with than Nick himself. We never really understand where Nick is coming from emotionally. For example, a reader might assume that his over-eagerness to share his cultural knowledge is partly a defensive manoeuvre, a way of finding a niche in a world in which he would not otherwise fit. However, this is the kind of question that is not made explicit; a little more clarity might have helped the reader understand Nick’s emotional make-up at a deeper level.
Given its subject matter, the novel is inevitably rich with references to works of art, classical music and fine antiques. If, like Sir Maurice Tipper (the ‘guest-from-hell’ at the Feddens' manoir in France), you are unsure what a Romanesque narthex is, or if you are not familiar with boulle work, ormolu or rococo boiseries, you may feel the need of an explanatory guide (such as Book Drum!). But for the uninformed reader who wants to move smoothly through the text without consulting a guide, the sheer quantity of unfamiliar allusions may prove something of a stumbling block.
There is some wonderfully amusing and insightful writing, where the aptness of language and the behavioural nuances are extremely striking. Watch out in particular for the piano recital by the exiled daughter of an imprisoned dissident, and the account of the Tippers' visit to the manoir. Occasional sentences seem overly lengthy and complex. However this may be deliberate on the part of the author; the novel is in part a pastiche of the work of Henry James (whose writing style is notoriously convoluted).
All in all, The Line of Beauty is a thought-provoking read. I was struck by the fact that charming, insincere, corrupt politicians, dodgy businessmen and pretentious wealth are by no means exclusive to the Thatcherite era. The novel also led me to ponder the uses and abuses of knowledge, and how profoundly democratized Nick’s kind of cultural knowledge has become through the riches of the Internet. I suspect, however, that reactions to this novel will be many and varied, and that is probably one of its greatest strengths.
Click here to read a review from The Guardian
Click here to read a review from the London Review of Books
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Reviews from the Internet:
Alan Hollinghurst's prose is simply beautiful K.D. Oliveros, goodreads.com
Hollinghurst, acknowledged as one of his generation's best writers, is an incisive social and political satirist
Bookmarks Magazine, goodreads.com
Beautifully written in high Jamesian style, this is a penetrating look back to the Thatcher era in London
... I can only take so many pages of coke-fuelled gay sex and this novel went over my limit
Janet Berkman, goodreads.com
No denying the quality of the writing. But good lord, the characters were so repellent, I cheered out loud when they all got shafted at the end
Catherine Roberts, goodreads.com