Star rating - 9/10
This new, and very probably future prize winning, novel from Alan Hollinghurst is extremely reminiscent of previous classics such as Brideshead Revisited and The Go Between. It is set in another time and world, and the characters in the drama become obsessed with, and on occasion haunted by, the past, and events that happen at the start of the book, and by the end were so long ago.
Cecil Valance is the dazzling visitor who appears in the first part to take the family by storm and, although they are not aware of the luminous and pivotal role he will come to play at the time, entwine himself in their lives and enchant them for generations to come. Like a peeping tom, the reader has a perspective on early events that the characters in the four part family saga through the ages can’t have. And therefore you get a tantalising, and at times infuriating, different perspective on their actions and feelings.
Cecil exudes glamour, charm, and mischief; and is all too soon ripped away from the family, and the reader, by getting himself killed in the First World War. But not before he has left a legacy of mediocre, but subsequently much celebrated poetry, on which the future reputations of the family, and those who came into his orbit, are based. Hollinghurst is clever in that he doesn’t write Cecil’s celebrated poem ‘Two Acres’ out in full, but just divulges snippets through various characters throughout the novel.
It is a novel about class, set as it is amongst the English country set. It is also about, I am told inevitably for Hollinghurst, the nature of gay love, and other love for that matter too. And he makes his readers work very hard, with no immediately obvious signposting for them of the different periods he is writing about, or who the people are whose world’s we are glimpsing.
The prose is beautiful to read, sometimes just for its own sake, as well of course as to move events along. A would –be valet, Jonah, is being told how to perform his duties when Cecil comes to stay: “‘Just find out if he needs anything. Unpack his bags as soon as he comes, and, you know, arrange the contents convincingly.’ This was the word, enormous but elusive, that Jonah had had on his mind all day, sometimes displaced by some other task, then gripping him again with a subtle horror.” It is a delight to read.
The structure of the novel is clever and engaging, and the story is enchanting. I loved it and will definitely be reading more of his work.