on 22 August 2010
A pacy, vivid, eminently readable and extremely accomplished literary fiction debut. Three entwined narratives unfurl, revealing the lives of three gay Londoners, spanning a century of gay history. The narrative twists around the dark, seamy undercurrent of London's gay life that is a curious constant, even as society and its attitudes change, conjuring up a very different portrait of London and the twentieth century gay experience from anything else out there. London Triptych is highly charged with strong emotion and a powerful, raw sexuality.
Kemps draws very real characters with very real flaws and deep, visible wounds who are fully human in all their unreliability and weakness and very capable of acting in a frustratingly self-destructive way. Each character's story is ultimately a profound tragedy and yet these are not characters to be pitied, but who live their lives unabashedly and truthfully to themselves, for good or bad and with pride or shame. They react organically to the lives they live in, accepting the choices they have made, in some cases, and railing against them in others. Each trades to some extent in combinations of sex, money and power and each within the context of their place in the society of their time. Jack manages to cling to a sweet, blind and hopeless optimism in the face of obvious disaster; Colin is weighed down by a quietly terrified, claustrophobic inaction and meekly accepts a life unlived, while David's confrontational hedonism and decadence leads to a spiralling descent into an inevitable and terrible destruction born of the obsession, frustration, fear, anger, bitterness, love and regret that have shaped his existence.
Vivid and uncompromising characterisation and a subtly elegant, artfully drawn structure remind of the likes of Barbara Kingsolver, Rohinton Mistry and David Mitchell and belie a talent that will surely rank Kemp high among his literary fiction-writing peers. Kemp's is a wonderful and necessary addition to the canon of modern gay literature that should transcend the gay-writing tag and he should proudly sit alongside Toibin, Waters, Hollinghurst et al among the very best writers of British (and Irish!) literary fiction today.
on 7 October 2010
This book made me laugh, made me cry and kept me intrigued throughout.
Kemp weaves three stories together seamlessly, making you feel empathy, sympathy and pity for his (often brazen, but still endearing) characters.
Probably not suitable for the more prudish reader due to pages and pages of quite graphic sexual exploits but for everyone else, READ IT! Whether gay or not gay- this is a hilarious (and harrowing) narrative of human relationships, romance (only sometimes) and sex.
on 26 February 2011
The cover blurb was compelling: 'Rent boys, aristocrats, artists and criminals ...' And it is indeed a bold debut by Jonathan Kemp, both accomplished and unflinching in its portrayal of 'London's strangely constant gay underworld.' What I loved about this novel was the tension between overlapping worlds: on the one a hand darkly irreverent orgy of hedonistic abandon, and on the other, a painful existence of denial and lives half-lived. The introduction of the soon-to-be-famous Oscar Wilde was a stroke of genius - and Kemp's lyrical prose and seamless dialogue was a joy to read. I really am looking forward to reading more from this talented writer.
on 27 November 2010
London Triptych, Jonathan Kemp's debut novel, is a must read for all genders, straight and gay alike. This book which is set in London and spans over a hundred years, links the lives of Jack 1895, Colin 1954, and David 1998. That all three men are gay should not put off the straight reader. Yes, the sex in the book is explicit, but that it does not overwhelm the stories is a tribute to Kemp's storytelling ability.
I found myself, as each individual story begins to unwind, becoming increasingly emotionally attached to each character. Jack's story, which by Kemp's admission, is the most fixed historically, explores what it is to be a male prostitute at the end of the nineteenth century. Although Jack himself is a fiction, this character's imagined interplay with the very real historical figure of Oscar Wilde, makes for fascinating reading. The character of Colin, a repressed would be artist from the nineteen fifties, counterpoints Jack's libidinal innocence, even as he plunges, eyes wide open, into the seamier side of London's hidden side. Colin fraught with doubt, disgust and shame of his own desires embarks upon a 'quest' of self discovery with Gore (Colin's model). Finally the third character, David, is set at the end of the twentieth century. David, whose story is similar to Jack's in that he also chooses a life as a rent boy, undergoes a very different journey suffering, eventually, a complete disillusionment and detachment. Until, that is, he, like Jack and Colin, discover love...
on 26 August 2010
What an amazing book. Three lives. Three distinct periods in gay history. Three men finding their feet in a secret world. Jonathan has captured these voices perfectly and each period is referenced intelligently and subtly. I really liked this aspect. It would've been easy to have bashed the reader over the head with clichéd references but Jonathan has avoided this, carefully enticing the reader into each life, getting under the skin of each character. It terms of structure it reminded me of Michael Cunningham's The Hours and William Corlett's Now and Then. A simple structure but devastatingly effective.
It's also a beautiful written, the type of book that you read again and again, to mull over each sentence. The well crafted sentences had a `Sebastian Horsley' ring to them - a (sadly departed) writer I hold in very high regard. And the sex that's peppered throughout is well written. Sex scenes are not easy to write but Jonathan has mastered the art. Another aspect I was particularly impressed with was the way he captured Wilde's voice. That must have been difficult, but you really can imagine the words coming from Wilde's mouth.
This is the best gay novel to be published in many years. Without a doubt. It is literary fiction at its best.
on 20 February 2011
A compelling, sensitive and sexy novel, which - rare for literary fiction - is also a page turner.
Like Alan Hollinghurst, Sarah Waters and Jeanette Winterson, this writer deserves recognition beyond the gay community, as he has so much to say about being human.
While I'm on the subject of recognition of gay authors, I'd like to give a plug for Samuel Lock - a terribly underrated author who writes with compassion, humour and sensitivity about the gay London of the 1950s in As Luck Would Have It, The Whites of Gold and Nothing But the Truth.
This is an amazing first novel by Jonathan Kemp. He tells the stories of three gay men spread over one hundred odd years in London. It starts with Jack Rose in the 1890's where he gets introduced to the world of male whores after first becoming a telegram boy. He meets a lot of very interesting characters including Oscar Wilde, who is written brilliantly by Kemp, and he admits in his `Afterword' that he pretty much made up all of the dialogue after extensive research.
Then it moves on to the 1950's where 54 year old repressed, gay, artist Colin Read leans towards his urges in drawing a male model, whore and part time anything that goes, Gregory or `Gore to his friends. Gore opens the door to sexual liberation just enough for Colin to fall through with beguiling yet tragic results.
Then we are brought up to date with David a hedonistic, male whore who embraces the drug fuelled excesses of the 1990's and all the ups and downs that it brings. We have sex, drugs and well art. It is all loosely tied together through two of the central characters and a web of connections through a shared need for gay sex and a moth to flame relationship with Londons more `theatrical' night spots.
It is told in episodic form that pulls the whole thing together and has a rhythm that carries you along to the ultimate end that face them all.
I ruddy loved this, and found it hard to put down, one of those where I was sad it was finished as I wanted more, and that is the best way to leave your audience. For gay fiction this is a must have and I can not recommend highly enough, lets hope Mr Kemp does a follow up soon.
on 16 October 2010
This is a book that creeps up on you emotionally. At one level, it is a fascinating insight into aspects of gay life across more than a century with Colin, the 1950s gay artist, a particularly poignant illustration of the persecuted and repressed lives gay men were often forced to lead. But the book is also three love stories with all the ecstasy and agony that unrequited love can bring. The modern story of David is especially haunting and that sudden, overwhelming, all-consuming feeling that love is, and its counterpart in obsession and desperation, are brilliantly portrayed. This is a book by a gay man for gay men in that there are aspects of the story - especially those parts that relate to Colin (1950s) and David (late 1990s) that will resonate in different ways but which only experience of life as a gay man can make you really feel for.
on 11 October 2011
In the anonymity of a large city, people can shape their identities without much reference to others, apart from the constraints of the law. In this book, the lives of three London men across three generations are plaited together. They have lots in common despite their very different circumstances. Unbeknown to each other, what happens when their separate paths cross influences their habits and behaviour for the rest of their lives.
There is the usual defence of prostitution - that we all pay for sex in some way or another: that it's a challenge to capitalism.
Some parts are implausible, e.g. a talent scout would not need the phone number of one the young hopefuls because he would already have it.
I doubt whether a semi-literate working-class young man from the late 19th Century would use words like `resilience' nor that he could allude to literary classics, though I did enjoy the pun in his phrase `this septic isle.'
I'm not sure what to make of the phrase, `Your hair smelt atomic'.
Despite these slight misgivings, I found the lure of this book such that I couldn't wait to see what would happen next and I had to ration myself to so many pages per day. I look forward to the author's next book which is due out later this month.
on 9 August 2016
Jonathan Kemp explores hungers we cannot explain and paints images not only intensely erotic, but tender. Here, in London Triptych, he shows us the unfolding of three men’s lives, each an unravelling ribbon, fluid, twisting, looking back upon itself. Their stories are confessionals, inviting us to enter the nocturnal, hidden recesses of the psyche. Meanwhile, London’s shadows and secrets echo those within our protagonists, and remind us that we readers, too, have our untold stories.
Each of the tales within the ‘triptych’ takes place, primarily, in London, though separated by five decades. We see the details of the setting change, while the themes remain eternal: our desire for what we cannot articulate; our struggle to express ourselves freely; our eagerness to navigate the ‘geography of possibilities’; our delight in love, glorious, overwhelming and unexpected; and the vulnerability of that state.
1890s rent boy Jack Rose falls into an almost unwilling passion for Oscar Wilde, leading towards a path of disappointment and betrayal. 1950s artist Colin tentatively explores his sexuality, against a backdrop of prudery and prejudice. In the 1990s, David awaits release from prison, telling of the lover who deceived him.
With each interchanging narrative, we learn more of each protagonist’s history and motivations, and we see the ways in which their stories resemble one other. They do not go in search of love. Rather, it surprises them, catching them off guard. They experience transcendence and then misery: a change in their worldview.
Sex is central to the story, an enduring, irresistible force, with or without love. It is the engine driving each of our narrators to discover a version of the ‘self’ yet out of reach.
Jack Rose tells us: ‘I became a whore in order, not to find myself, but to lose myself in the dense forest of that name.’
However, love is the transformative emotion. Love enervates and destroys, bringing ultimate joy and torture. We are shown its ability to shed light on our restricted, repetitive paths.
Kemp explores what it has meant to be homosexual in a world which views those desires as dangerously inverted, and shows us the tension between pleasure and danger, when there are ‘no laws but those of the body’:
‘When you can be free, free to pursue any desire, acquire any knowledge… it’s the most terrifying place to live. It’s dangerously beautiful…’
As ever, Kemp’s storytelling goes beyond action and consequence, or the clever use of dialogue to reveal character, or the exploration of eternal themes. His talent lies in his use of language, probing words for their secrets, for their ‘blood-beat’, for their ability to reveal ‘meaning held within the contours of the skin’. He returns, again and again, to the inadequacy of language to express the erotic truths of the body, the ‘cannibal, animal hunger’ of desire.
And yet, he, as few authors can, animates the ‘universal language of lust written on the body and spoken by the eyes and fingers’.
He shows us that sex can take us to other destinations within the ‘self’, as if ‘opening doors that lead to other corridors, and other doors’: ‘I am here without knowing how. Suddenly, terrifyingly present. Here, now, lost and hot…’
Meanwhile, London itself embodies the elusive, enchanting paradox of existence. It is a place of anonymity, and simultaneous intimacy; London is the unseen, legion-faced (and thus faceless) listener, inviting the narrators to share their secrets. It is a place of judgment (all three stories bring to bear the presence of the law and prospective punishment for homosexual transgression) and of liberation. It is a place of contradictions, just as we are contradictory.