But for those who have never been to London, I’d urge them to read Kemp’s novel as a primer. He takes the lives of his three protagonists and shows us the rich gay underworld of this city through their eyes. We meet Jack in the 1890s, who is a rent boy and friend of the soon-to-be-famous Oscar Wilde; the artist Colin, who explores his sexuality in the 1950s amid queer witch-hunting and harassment; and David, a prisoner who, in 1998, recalls his raunchy adventures from the 1980s.
Since its first publication in 2010, London Triptych has received widespread critical acclaim, including winning the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. This year it has been released in North America, published by Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press.
Kemp says the original idea for his book came from Wilde, the man widely regarded as the granddaddy of a contemporary gay identity. “The book was inspired by the shadowy figures of the panthers with whom Wilde feasted. I wanted to know more of them, and that became a seed which grew.”
As well as being a captivating read, London Triptych leaves you marvelling at Kemp’s literary high-wire act. The characters’ erotic desires are all palpably real, while he also gently points out just how much the practical realities of existing as a gay man have evolved. But the multiple-narrative structure, he reports, “was a total headache. I worked on each story separately, but I more or less knew where the breaks would appear. Each story came to me episodically.”
Kemp’s book is pleasingly and unapologetically about men who are sexual. Does he feel his writing is intrinsically gay? “I think this book has a specific focus on male-male desire and sexuality, and explores the historical development of gay men within society, but I don’t think my writing is gay, no. I have no problem being called a gay writer, but I don’t only write about gay people. In my forthcoming novel, for example, the central character is a 65-year-old heterosexual woman.”
Arsenal Pulp Press