The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

sparsholt-affairThis is a tricky one to review. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I was especially impressed by the flawless architecture of the story. But the ending, to me, felt abrupt, and left me feeling somewhat empty.

The book spans about seventy years. It’s told in five distinct sections, each one focusing on a different character, time period, or incident. It begins in the 1940s in Oxford, with the first person account of the meeting of two students, Evert Dax and David Sparsholt, written by Evert’s friend Freddie. The following sections mostly concern Sparsholt’s son, Johnny, though other characters get POV sections as well.

I really enjoyed reading each new section as it appeared, without knowing too much about it, so I’m not going to recap much of the plot here. Though sometimes only loosely connection, the way this book was built was compelling, and, in my opinion, structurally flawless. What I loved most about the book was its architecture. There is so much missing from the story. It’s not a detailed account of seventy years in the lives of a family and a group of friends–rather, it’s a collection of important moments, time periods, incidents. For me, this made the book very rich. So much happened off the page, just underneath the surface, or in the intervening years between the sections. I didn’t find this frustrating; rather, it made the characters come alive. The characters changed over the years, fell in and out of relationships, came to know and love each other in various different ways. As a reader, fitting all those pieces together was a delight. I got to know the characters better and better as the book went on, and took great pleasure in seeing how the events from past sections affected their present.

I enjoyed the novel for its own sake, allowing the meandering lives of these characters to engage me, but I also enjoyed its historical sweep. It mostly concerns gay men (although there were some gay women as well), and the various ways gay life in Britain has changed from 1940 to 2010 or so. It never felt forced or vague, but it was a beautiful meditation on how deeply society, culture, place, law, etc. can shape our lives. The fact that Hollinghurst allowed us glimpses of the same characters all the way through the book was especially powerful. The world of the 1990s and 2000s was very different for Dax and Sparsholt, who’d been young men in the 1940s, than for Johnny, born in the 1950s. This felt like the heart of the book, to me–the way time, and where and when we grow up, shapes us, and continues to shape us as the world keeps changing.

This was also a book about family–both found and biological. There were so many threads of family running through it, people forming and reforming families in various different ways. This theme also felt connected to generational culture and the passage of time. As time passed, new possibilities opened for the characters, and so the book became a sort of kaleidoscope of seventy years of queer family making.

There were a lot of quiet moments, ordinary moments whose import only became clear in a later section of the book, after much time had passed. The book was linear, but it didn’t feel that way, perhaps because it was so episodic. It was a combination of snapshots and wide-angle vistas, an exploration both of memory and of immediacy. It was definitely character-driven, but also, I would say, driven by history. It was not especially dramatic. It was the passage of time itself that made it so compelling. I wasn’t turning pages to find out what happened after some major event, but simply to know who happened next in the lives of these characters. Where did they go next, how did they change? It takes some talent to make such a quiet book so engaging, and Hollinghurst has it.

The ending, to me, felt abrupt. I came to the last page and felt like I had missed something. Perhaps the ending was simply meant to be as quiet as the rest of the book, or perhaps a book so meandering and without a central plot can’t have a decisive ending. It certainly didn’t ruin the book for me, but I felt a little dizzy, like I was tossed out of the book before I was quite ready to let go.

Nonetheless, this was a wonderful book, and I was especially struck by Hollinghurst’s mastery of structure and story. It’s always a pleasure to read a book so perfectly crafted that you can just sit back and let it take you where it takes you, knowing you are in good hands.

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