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Something of a throwback
on 22 July 2013
This is a very readable first-person study of the love between Oliver, a privileged artist in his late 30s and John, a wannabe writer in his late teens. John's thoughtlessness and lack of self-awareness leads him to make a mistake of tragic proportions, one which adversely affects nearly all the main characters of the book. It was first published in 1981 at a time when novels dealing with gay relationships were becoming - not before time - more positive and sexually explicit, yet it feels rather old-fashioned, partly because it is set in the 1950s, more because it reflects the kind of gay novels that appeared in an earlier generation. In order to get published, these novels tended to depict gay relationships as troubled and doomed - one of the main protagonists was sure to die - and unhappily, this novel falls into the same category. The central relationship between the two men, around which the whole book is built, is flawed and tragic, leading to depression, guilt and remorse. That said, it deals with it with honesty and sensitivity and is very engaging.
The two central characters are mismatched in age, in experience, in sexual orientation (John is bisexual), in sensibility, in background, in their ability to love. Once John, the teenager, makes his fatal mistake, not realising how hard it will hit his former lover, the scene is set for tragedy - though by no means inevitably. After this, it becomes a tale of disintegration, grief and remorse. The first two parts of the book work well, but it's let down by the third part, a confused and lengthy coda that attempts to find redemption in religious visions and Christian morality, relying on psychology that feels unconvincing.
Also, perhaps in the interests of 'taste', or to comply with a publisher's timidity, or the author not wishing to be too 'out' himself, there is nothing here which expresses the characters' lust or sexual desire, no descriptions of love-making, no passion. It's as if these vital qualities, which drew the protagonists together, simply don't exist. Compare that with some of the explicit novels coming out of the USA at the time - and Alan Hollinghurst's first novel 'The Swimming Pool Library', for instance - and we see what a throwback this novel is. (Or, this being a first-person account, are we to infer that John's interest in sex was either non-existent or infantile - which seems unlikely?)
Yet for all it's gaps, its patchy quality, its traditional flavour, its plain prose, for all the limitations of the first-person account, this book was worth reprinting. It has narrative drive, well-drawn characters and is a novel that takes gay love seriously.