Book Review: The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

Genre: LGBT+, Gay Fiction

Publishing Info: 2017 by Picador

Pages: 454

Star Rating: 3.5/5

The Sparsholt Affair Hollinghurst

Back Cover Summary:

In October 1940, the handsome young David Sparsholt arrives in Oxford. A keen athlete and oarsman, he at first seems unaware of the effect he has on others – particularly on the lonely and romantic Evert Dax, son of a celebrated novelist and destined to become a writer himself. While the Blitz rages in London, Oxford exists at a strange remove: an ephemeral, uncertain place, in which nightly blackouts conceal secret liasions. Over the course of one momentous term, David and Evert forge an unlikely friendship that will colour their lives for decades to come . . . 


Regular readers of my blog, especially those who have seen my review of Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, will know how much I admire the work of this author and the way he is honest as possible about his protagonists; I can identify a lot with their thought processes and the way they see the homosexual world around them. In fact, I would say that this novel is quite similar to The Stranger’s Child in the way that it moves through the decades, occasionally changing narrators, and thereby not allowing the readers to stay comfortable.

The narrative begins in the middle of WWII, in Oxford, with student Freddie Green being the one to introduce those around him to the readers. In that sense it is also similar to his earlier work but with one difference: the majority of the characters are not seen very often in future sections. As arguably the one major recurring player in their respective texts, Evert Dax is not as captivating as Daphne Sawle, maybe due to Hollinghurst reducing the character to a few scenes.

On the other hand, Johnny Sparsholt, the son of the character who kick-starts the plot in the first half of the book, is one of Hollinghurst’s biggest successes to date. He is likeable from the start and is so relatable in his attempts to strive away from the ‘Sparsholt Affair’ that has darkened and defined his life. In particular, the scenes with his daughter Lucy are a particular highlight. It feels like Hollinghurst is becoming more masterful with the portrayal of his narrators.

Where the protagonists are coming on in strength, sadly I’m not sure that the same can be said about the overall narrative. The majority of Hollinghurst’s previous novels have had a particular focus that can be said to have a unique place in the genre. I’m not sure that the ‘Sparsholt Affair’ is hard-hitting enough, especially where it happens between sections, to be the overall focus of the plot. Johnny being a father and gay is much more realistic than the likes of The Spell, for example, but even that can’t completely hold the novel up. There is also the connection of the artistic and the homosexual, as is the case for several of his works, but again this feels like a weaker version of something that has come before.

I must make it clear at this point that these critiques don’t totally hamper my enjoyment at reading this for the first time. Despite it’s relatively long length I found the contents pretty good, once I caught on at the start of each section. It is not my favourite Alan Hollinghurst novel but the comments I have made above are only small compared to the positives I found. I get the sense that Hollinghurst is constructing his own literary world through the writing of these novels, with each of them taking on a different era or location and each of them discussing a certain issue within queer culture and society.

Overall The Sparsholt Affair is another solid success for Alan Hollinghurst and I am eagerly awaiting any future works, which I hope come at homosexual life from a completely different angle to what he has done before.

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