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The Line of Beauty Paperback – 1 Apr 2005
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Luminous... [an] astonishingly Jamesian novel, a crafty, glittering, sidelong bid by a contemporary master of English prose to be considered heir to James himself. For a novel that spans only four years, 1983 to 1987, it seems to encompass a world as capacious as any in a James novel. (The Times)
There is something memorable on every page... there is much to savour in The Line of Beauty, not least its humour, a shivering yet morally exacting satire that leaves no character untouched. (Times Literary Supplement)
Superb . . . Alan Hollinghurst is in the prime of his writing life, and the immaculate rolling cadences of his new novel are right now the keenest pleasure English prose has to offer. (Daily Telegraph)
Quite simply a joy to read. It is solid and traditional, beautifully crafted. A quiet masterpiece. (Scotland on Sunday)
Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2004, The Line of Beauty is a perfectly realized tale of our times.See all Product description
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Courageously written in third person narrator spanning four years in Thatcher years, it tracks the experience of a middle-class (emphasis on his class) fresh-out-of-university Nick who starts boarding in one of his affluent friend's house in Kensington. Between holidays in rural France, clocking up boyfriends (secretly), and paryting with the rich and the powerful (it's boom time for the Tories!) he graduates slickly from a tagalong to a self-fashioned aesthetic advisor, and smugly, mistakenly believes he has become one of them: an Insider. Then he missteps or rather finds himself at the wrong end, the chips fall, and he is promptly shown the door. Around this misunderstanding of intimacies and loyalties, he witnesses some of his paramours swallowed whole by the raging AIDS epidemic.
I found Nick to be a very curious narrator and was absolutely bewitched by his contradictions. He is, at heart, a deeply sensitive man with a penchant to appreciate beauty of the surfaces, art, architecture, with a repertoire of appreciating ranging from Henry James' poised prose all the way to the contrapuntal beauty in Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances. And yet, other than a literal extrapolation of this sensitivity to his gaze at the male anatomy, his engagement with the people and enquiry into his own behaviour remains detached, analytical and oddly passive for a good two-thirds of the book. This makes him a phenomenally interesting protagonist: who in equal parts enticed and indifferent, is traipsing through the aisles of high-life, casually soaking the decadence without letting the moral radar prod through. Despite being given a credible eye for surfaces, Hollinghurst has packed him chockfull with deep interiorities. And the result is that the book reads very deeply.
Suffice to say, I have found in Hollinghurst a master prose stylist absolutely in control of all the elements: literal, tonal, subtextual which means that the literalities do not matter for the longest of times, even though the author has painstakingly researched and concealed this research to let the characters breathe and the reader feel their company and the times they live in. There is not a sentence wasted or spent wandering. In what could be termed a traditional manner of constructing and delivering big novels, little character and event details mentioned quietly like leitmotifs in the initial pages are made to gradually develop, seemingly organically over the four years (but obviously the author is pulling the strings) and made to come together to form a climactic movement in the foreground that wrenches an ephiphany and an emotion out of his reader, almost like a musical symphony.
Rest assured I’d be returning to this book for the sheer brilliance of the writing performance and an offensively high number of quotable lines. Bravo!
The story follows Nick Guest, a gay graduate from Oxford University who has found himself adopted by the family of Gerald Fedden. Fedden is the father of Nick's friend from university, Toby. Gerald Fedden is a fairly prominent Conservative politician whose political career provides a constant background to the explorations of friendship, sexuality and drugs that the story engages with.
The most pleasing aspect about the novel is the way that it deploys Nick's viewpoint to flit in and out of the broader political context which avoids it becoming a staid political critique of Thatcher's Britain. Readers therefore avoid being manipulated towards a simplistic conclusion about Tory Britain in the '80s even if the activities of this particular household are personally fairly damning.
Viewed from the perspective of austerity Britain, the presentation of the economically booming Britain of the '80s is arguably even more compelling. The casual attitude to both drugs and wealth certainly gives food for thought and provides a significant reminder to the reader about the social legacy that underpins the political machinations of 21st century politicians, a significant number of whom would have partied with the best of them at the kind of parties detailed within the fabric of this novel.
There are few characters that are very likable in this novel and it is perhaps a telling fact that one of the most endearing characters is Catherine, Toby's 'mad' sister, who, more than anyone, sees the society that she frequents for what it really is.
I only really had one criticism of the novel. In my opinion, and this wasn't shared by my friend who I discussed the book with the other day, Hollinghurst's prose struck me as being a little pretentious at times; particularly with regard to his lexical choices, which reflected to me a slightly contrived attempt to puff up the intellectual clout of the narrative.
Overall, I would thoroughly recommend 'The Line of Beauty'. It immerses the reader in a fascinating period of history for the UK, giving an intense flavour of a Tory-led society that publicly struggled to keep a lid on the private cocktail of sex, drugs and sexuality that bubbled underneath, threatening to shatter the foundations of the family-centric idyll of Conservatism.
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