When it comes to my parents, I’m a terrible prude.
I refuse to go into their bedroom if they are in a state of even partial undress. I flinch from the television if any bad language is used. I die inside if sex is brought up in any context, however veiled, however distant. My parents are of strong faith and have somewhat puritan views, but none so pure as mine become in their presence. I am, in essence, a teenager.
Which is why, when my mother picked up this excellent and delicate novel from the kitchen counter and asked if she should read it, I coloured an attractive shade of puce, and, snatching it back, murmured something almost incomprehensibly vague about it’s unsuitability due to “overly colourful content.”
What I meant, and what I can say a safe 50 miles away from my parents, is that there’s a fair amount of explicit gay sex. It caught me by surprise, having picked up the placid and elegant cover from Waterstones’ staff recommendation section and seeing all the reviews comment on the style and craftsmanship. It becomes less explicit as the book goes on, but there’s more than one rent boy threesome by then. To be fair, it is justified – the book is an exploration among other things of the excesses and riches of the 1980s and the awakening of gay culture and AIDS consciousness through the lens of high-class society and Thatcher’s blue-blood MPs. But the inner prude still raised her eyebrows on reading some passages, much like the protagonist Nick would have at the beginning of the book.
The truly brilliant thing about this book, however, is the acuteness of the observations and the neatness of the writing. Again and again, Hollinghurst captures a moment or a feeling with such insight and deftness that you have to stop, reeling in recognition. Here’s an example of a neat irresistible observation (not the best, but I can’t for the life of me find it going back as Nick does nothing but reflect on his and everyone else’s behaviour):
‘Sometimes his memory of books he hadn’t read became almost as vivid as that of books he had read an half forgotten, by some fertile process of auto-suggestion.’
Despite the explicit nature of some passages, it is the delicacy with which Nick’s interior world is captured that is the marvel of this book. It leaves you more aware of the shades of emotion and observation in yourself and others, and if you’re me, leaves you constructing (wannabe) Hollinghurstian sentences in your head as you notice yourself feel a shade of longing or doubt.
So, as long as you are a relaxed sort of person, who sunbathes topless and frankly discusses risque liaisons with your parents, recommend it to them.