Nick, the central character in Alan Hollinghurst’s wonderful new novel, is a young, alert middle-class boy with precociously refined aesthetic sensibilities and a gift for endearing himself to others. ‘He liked to be charming, and hardly noticed when he drifted excitedly into insincerity.’ He has come out as gay shortly before the novel’s opening, but lacks — at least until chapter two — any actual experience. His friendship with the straight son of a junior minister in the Thatcher government — actually a longstanding erotic infatuation kept painfully under wraps — has led to a successful wooing of the friend’s entire family. This has earned him his own room in their big, white Notting Hill house, and honorary status as their all-but-adopted son. Of course, it also entails certain, awkwardly ill-defined responsibilities. ‘What always held him was the family’s romance of itself,’ writes Hollinghurst, ‘with its little asperities and collusions that were so much more charming and droll than those in his own family.’ How involved in this romance Nick should allow himself to become is the chief source of the floating suspense that suffuses the novel.
It is almost unbelievably well-written — 600 pages of finely wrought but tough, close-in observation. Negotiating cocaine, adultery, homosexuality and Margaret Thatcher in a serious novel requires a perfect touch, and Hollinghurst has shown he has it. In its dazzling, very contemporary way, the book is tragic. But it is also consistently funny. (In his study, Gerald Fedden, the Thatcher minister, ‘like an uxorious bigamist, had photos of both [his wife] Rachel and the Prime Minister in silver frames.’) A lot — but by no means all — of the humour derives from Hollinghurst’s explicit descriptions of Nick’s burning libido. At dinner with his new boyfriend’s very religious mother, Nick feels ‘deliciously brainwashed’ by sex: ‘when he closed his eyes phallus chased phallus like a wallpaper pattern across the dark, and at any moment the imagery of anal intercourse, his new triumph and skill, could gallop in surreal montage across the street or classroom or dining table.’ Later in the novel, Nick watches a young man showing off ‘with the funny unchallengeable poofiness of a handsome straight boy in a country town’.
The nuances of class inevitably play a huge part in the unfolding plot. When Nick tells Gerald’s mother he is staying in a small room on the top floor at the family’s manor house, she professes not to have known that it had any small rooms.
‘But then I don’t suppose I’ve ever been on the top floor.’ Nick half-admired the way she had taken his modesty and dug it deeper for him, and almost found a slur against herself in it.
Despite his impressive aesthetic sensitivities and his ability to ingratiate himself, Nick’s life is really ‘a series of shocks, more or less well mastered’. Hollinghurst gives him a thickly realised interior life, and although this isn’t exactly at odds with his evasive behaviour, it certainly does create tension. He has a long affair with the handsome, cocaine-snorting son of an insanely wealthy Lebanese businessman, and it is during this second half of the novel, as excess is piled on excess, that we feel the dangers increasing.
Henry James, on whom Nick is trying to write a thesis, is a cleverly handled leitmotif throughout the book. But the title — and another thematic strand — derives from Hogarth’s ‘Analysis of Beauty’. Hollinghurst describes Hogarth’s ideally beautiful serpentine line as ‘the snakelike flicker of an instinct, of two compulsions held in one unfolding moment’, and to Nick it explains almost everything about the blessed circumstances of his life.
But of course those circumstances are intensely precarious. The inevitable comeuppance finally arrives, and when it does, it fizzes and brims over with all the latent complications that have preceded it. Hollinghurst’s sense of ambiguity is intensely artful, but, more than that, it feels lifelike.