Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Review: Alan Hollinghurst's 'The Line of Beauty'

I bought this book a few years ago, soon after watching and enjoying the tv series based on it. Too soon, really - I spent most of my time comparing the book to the series and it pulled me out of the 'story' and made it very difficult to focus. Eventually I gave up and stuck the book on the shelf, and I only picked it up again the other week... and promptly wondered why on earth I'd waited so long!

The book is terrific. Quite possibly Hollinghurst's best, and that's against some pretty stiff opposition. Set in the 1980s of Margaret Thatcher, mobile phones, consumerist excess and yuppie-dom, it tells the story of Nick Guest, a young gay man who gets himself invited to live with his university friend Toby's family. Toby's father Gerald is an up-and-coming politician in the Thatcher government and his mother Rachel is an upper-class heiress. Nick, who is obsessed by beauty in all its forms, is swept off his feet by their attractiveness, their wealth and their social standing. At the same time he explores his own sexuality for the first time with affairs with a black council-worker and the son of a middle-eastern millionaire. Needless to say the course of true love does not run smooth and Nick learns the hard way as his lovers succomb to drug addiction and AIDS, and his new family prove to have their own skeletons in the closet.

There is so much going on inside the book - so much detail, so much humanity, so many themes, that I hardly know where to start. In particular I love the dry sly humour - the millionaire is clearly modelled on Mohammed Al Fayed, for instance - and the dialogue which conjures up so skillfully the brittle brilliance of the decade. Although the downward spiral of Nick's life takes on a tragic tone it's never overdone and the ending is just ambiguous enough to leave Nick, who's lost everything, with a flicker of hope for his future life.

Hollinghurst seems at times to be gleefully breaking all the usual writing rules. He uses 'tell' rather than 'show', especially when describing characters' emotions, and he manages to set an entire novel in the 1980s without mentioning a single person, piece of music, book, television programme or event from that time (with the obvious exception of Mrs Thatcher herself). And yet the sheer brilliance of the writing, and the everyday details of the characters' lives, bring the decade to vivid life anyway, so it hardly matters.

All in all it's a wonderful piece of writing and fully deserves its Man Booker Prize.


Sharon M.Bidwell said...

Sounds very interesting. Awhile ago the idea of the 'tell rather than show' would have put me off but I've discovered some good books/authors where this seems to work well so I'd be tempted to give it a try, even though I'm about to disappear under my growing pile of books still TBR...

fiona glass said...

I was left with the impression that he might have been using the 'tell' to show other things. Now that really is clever!