Book Review: The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst

Genre: LGBT+
Publishing Info: Vintage 1995 (originally by Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1994)
Pages: 422

Back Cover Summary:

Edward Manners – thirty-three and disaffected –
escapes to a Flemish city in search of a new life.
Almost at once he falls in love with the seventeen-
year-old Luc, and is introduced to the twilight world
of the 1890s Belgian painter Edgard Orst.

*Warning: This review contains spoilers relating to the plot. Do not continue if you intend to read this book unspoiled.*

The Folding Star is the second novel Alan Hollinghurst has published. As someone who has read all of the others (down largely to focusing on the author for my university dissertation), I notice stylistic elements that reoccur in later novels, as well as seeing the similarities with its predecessor, The Swimming-Pool Library. As a whole the novel is a good read but isn’t at successful at executing these elements as his other works.

One of the stylistic elements is the partition of his novels into different parts, normally three, which allow the writer to jump forwards in time or change narrator to a another individual. I don’t believe that this worked completely in The Folding Star. It simply allowed the narrative to move to an English setting, to expand on the protagonist’s childhood, sexual awakening and motivation for moving to Belgium. Rather than giving a continuation of the central narrative or providing an interesting alternative, the middle section slowed the pace right down. As a result, this part is the weakest part of the novel.

On the flip side, a stylistic element I enjoy is the overabundance of gay male characters, especially when the character inhabits indoor spaces such as bars. Whilst it is hard to follow who has done what with the protagonist, it replicates that chaotic, almost conveyor-belt nature of gay society, where someone new is likely to be just around the corner. This fits in quite nicely with the ‘outsider’ trope that Hollinghurst tends to use for a lot of his protagonists, but as an early novel I don’t find the character of Edward particularly likeable in his motivations and interactions with other characters. This could well have been made intentional but it was more effective in his other works and it made it harder for me to become engrossed in his search for Luc at the climax.

As for the central “romance”, I am not surprised by it. The writer has had a history of stylistically objectifying the male characters, especially if the love interest is younger or from a different racial background. However, I found the obsession of a teacher towards his 17 year old pupil a bit creepy, especially when it veered into graphic detail on what Edward wanted to do to Luc. The revelation that Luc was gay, or at least had attraction to guys, provided put a bow on the narrative up to then that was too neat and convenient, as if the writer was excusing the character for previous thoughts and acts. The dismissal of a non-white love interest in favour of pursuing Luc isn’t the first time this has happened in Hollinghurst’s novels, as though queerness cuts through racial barriers only temporarily, owing to the period this was written in, before the status quo returns.

I believe that one of the most successful aspects of this writer’s work is how he manages to merge stories of queerness from the past, with the protagonist’s own struggles. The Swimming-Pool Library did a terrific job with the painful story of Lord Nantwich. It was a interesting twist to include extracts from the lives of Edgard Orst and Paul, the curator of the Orst museum. One major theme running through Hollinghurst’s novels is the world of art, and how personal circumstances and experiences have influenced artworks featured. Orst’s life turned out to be mere framework for the true biography, Paul during the Jewish purge of World War II. I found this part more captivating than the central narrative, which is why it is a shame that it was just thrown onto the readers when the book was winding down at the end.

The aspect of his work that I maybe like and respect the most are how his novels end. Typically, they finish at a point that suggests some form of mental or physical change, but simultaneously doesn’t provide an exact ending point. The lives of the fictional protagonists as gay men will continue, as will the lives of those around them, but us as readers only get a snapshot into their lives; this occurs more when sections have different focus characters. Considering this, when combined with how I feel about the central pairing, I could have done without the final couple of pages when Edward finds Luc again after he runs away; I’d have preferred that question to be left in the air after closing the last page.

Overall, The Folding Star is a good read and it has enriched my understanding of the key themes around Alan Hollinghurst’s novels. Some aspects have been influenced heavily by The Swimming-Pool Library, others will go on to be refined in later books, so it definitely marks an important milestone for the author. Personally, this is not my favourite Hollinghurst book, mostly due to the slightly irritating protagonist and his obsession with his student, which sidelined a potentially stronger historical section, but I still enjoyed reading this.

Star Rating: ☆☆☆

 

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