3 min

Black & glittering

Masterly structured chronicle of Thatcher-era Britain

Credit: Xtra files

I was about 100 pages into Alan Hollinghurst’s fourth novel when news broke that it had won the Man Booker prize. Hollinghurst looks very pleased with himself on the cover flap of The Line Of Beauty – and award or not, he should be. The merciless, witty chronicler of British manners and mores has been called the stylistic and intellectual heir of US novelist Henry James; with this book he’s closer than ever to what seems a deliberate bid for the title.

Hollinghurst is unique in his ability to illuminate the vast edifice of Englishness through the covert lens of gay sensibility. He takes James’s deeply buried homo subtexts and, updating them by nearly a century, shows them subversively lived by London queers and discreetly or openly loathed by the standard-bearers of propriety.

In The Line Of Beauty, London’s tutting classes inhabit the 1980s drawing rooms of Notting Hill. Our guide to the private lives behind Maggie Thatcher’s voracious market economy is young Nick Guest. Fresh out of Oxford, Nick is 20 and living in plummy splendour at the Kensington Gardens family home of his school chum, Toby Fedden, whose father has recently been elected an MP in Thatcher’s Tory landslide of 1983.

In the parched heat of that very un-English summer, Nick and Catherine, Toby’s suicidal teenage sister, are alone most days in the big house. While the parents holiday in France and Toby comes and goes, Nick is left the job of, in Toby’s words, “taking care of the cat.” When things turn “black and glittering” in Catherine’s fragile psyche, she can’t be left alone. She and Nick have already become sisterly pals when his caretaking is tested; he comes home one steamy night to find the house oddly dishevelled, then finds an array of sharp kitchen tools laid out in Catherine’s bedroom.

Hollinghurst’s supple, meaning-packed prose invites accolades right off the top. As Nick honours her request to put the deadly implements out of her sight, Catherine describes how the world appears in her darkest moments. The passage gave me shudders. But Hollinghurst is too skilled to peddle poison without an antidote. He sets up Nick with a dishy blind date (or as Catherine says in a lighter moment, not really blind, “just very short-sighted”). The hope that Nick will connect with Leo is our saving grace. In 15 pages, Hollinghurst’s first chapter encompasses the world’s glitter and bleakness, pleasure and misery; its everyday sensory miracles (his London is nature and culture in equal, heady portions) and hellish gaping pits.

Nick is about to enter graduate school in London, his thesis a study of his “hero” Henry James, who, Nick notes, has a “style that hides things and reveals things at the same time.” Hollinghurst is talking about himself, though it’s hardly necessary.

Toby’s 21st birthday party in a bachelor Lord’s country house is a brilliantly structured set piece, from the mandatory speechifying to the final dissolution in a bedroom full of sprawled Oxford grads – boys and girls, gay and straight – plying their drunk and stoned half-conscious seductions on each other.

One hundred fifty pages in, not much in the way of plot has happened – only a masterful exposition making clear the promises and perils of Nick’s life, and a dozen or so sharply rendered portraits of supporting and bit players. Hollinghurst minutely observes every shift of social ambience and literal or figurative atmosphere, and every charge or drift of Nick’s moods and thoughts and judgments. Some readers will get impatient now and then (I did) with layers of nuance crammed into sentence after sentence. Depending on what (or how little) is a stake at a particular moment, the gushes of insight can begin to seem precious and showoffy. Hollinghurst’s intelligence is sometimes sported too conspicuously – like an ostentatious string of pearls against the gently heaving breast of his prose. The pearls are real, but the human part can get upstaged by the dazzle.

Nick is incorrigibly sensitive. During a piano recital in the Fedden’s drawing room, he observes the pianist “curbing some keen emotion of her own to the wisdom of Beethoven, so that the numbness of absence, the wistful solitude, the stifled climaxes of longing, came luminously through.”

Rapturous footnotes aside, the book is beautifully structured. Just when it seems destined to promise 400-odd pages of obsessive observation, it begins to gather its plot strands. The ’80s unfold, AIDS arrives and stays, the avaricious Thatcher behemoth rolls on. Hollinghurst weaves a dark tapestry from the flash and denial and folly. We’re as surprised as Nick is when he finds himself “gasping and whooping with grief.” But what we’re left with is his acceptance: “That the self-pity belonged to a larger pity. It was a love of the world that was shockingly unconditional.”

* Alan Hollinghurst reads at Harbourfront’s International Festival Of Authors at 8pm on Thu, Oct 28, then he and Colm Tóbín are interviewed at 7pm on Oct 29; call (416) 973-4000 or go to


Alan Hollinghurst.


438 pages. $24.95.