In October 1940 the handsome young David Sparsholt arrives in Oxford. A keen athlete and oarsman, he seems at first unaware of the effect he has on others – particularly on the lonely and romantic Evert Dax, son of a celebrated novelist, and himself destined to become a writer. While the Blitz rages in London, Oxford exists at a strange remove from the action: a place of transience, uncertainty, the rigours of the blackout encouraging and concealing unexpected liaisons. Between these two young men of very different backgrounds an unusual friendship develops – one whose consequences will unfold over the following seventy years.
Alan Hollinghurst’s masterly new novel evokes the intimate lives of three generations of Sparsholts in a sequence of vivid episodes – a childhood holiday in Cornwall, eccentric social gatherings at the Dax family’s Chelsea home, the adventures of David’s son Johnny in pursuit of love and a career as a painter in 1970s London. Changes in taste, morality and private life are explored in a group portrait of friends brought together by art, literature and love. Novels, buildings and paintings find favour and fall into obscurity with the whims of fashion; while life-changing crises and scandals recede into the past, leaving ambiguous traces. Gay men and women live in increasing freedom and openness, the gay scene itself mutating in time into new forms and possibilities.
The Sparsholt Affair emerges as a study in human transience and the countervailing longing for permanence and continuity. As in The Stranger’s Child, Hollinghurst’s exploration of shifting taste, class and human interaction is wonderfully witty, tender and rich in observation. This is an unmissable achievement that will be cherished by lifelong fans and new readers alike.