By Alan Hollinghurst
Hollinghurst splits his novel into three parts. Each follows Nick Guest as a twentysomething in London for the first time. It’s the 80s. Nick lodges with the family of a Tory MP and bonks blokes in the nearby keyholder-only garden. His story is a kind of Great Expectations: social mobility, the obstacles thereof, and how a young man grows up.
Although Nick is one of those protagonists who it’s hard to understand fully – we never get that close to him – his journey is enthralling. I felt like a proud parent, watching him fumble naively through love, and then settle into solid cynicism. The reader really feels that Nick is growing up. He comes to realise the politics of daily life, of relationships and families.
But perhaps one of the best things about Hollinghurst’s excellent novel is the way he treats people. The author is more than happy to satirise certain stereotypes, and yet he does it as if he’s their friend. This is not an angry novel designed to attack Thatcherites. In many ways, it does attack them, but it kills them softly. The Tory MP with whom Nick lodges notes that his cleaner and her daughter can move into his house while he’s summering in France. They can give it a full clean from top to bottom, he says, it’s a kind of holiday for them too.
It is fun and ignorant comments like these that make the book such a joy to read. They lift it from what otherwise could be a staid bildungsroman or, worse, a political rant. Above such shrewd characterisations is Hollinghurst’s mastery of language. His rich descriptions are far more readable than those of Dickens. And he can show how some tiny things can be full of wonder. The line of beauty of the title is the perfect example – a simple artistic motif, self-involved yet transcendent at the same time, and always full of possibility. Such is Nick, such is life.