Book Review: The Sparsholt Affair, by Alan Hollinghurst

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_The-sparsholt_affair.jpgThe Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst is an ambiguous tale of the permeating aftershocks of encounters with the charming David Sparsholt: war-hero, strong-man, closet gay man prior to the British sexual liberation of 1967. Set over five parts, numerous narrators give us peep-hole insights to the influence and lasting touches of Sparsholt, and cleverly leaves the unspeakable to occur behind blinds, during blackouts (of both varieties), and between parts. Be warned: the Sparsholt Affair is not entirely what it seems.

We are first introduced to David Sparsholt as an entry in Freddie Green’s memoir of Oxford during the war, in ‘that brief time between sunset and blackout when you could see into other people’s rooms’. Spied by Green and his contemporaries Evert Dax and Peter Goyle, Sparsholt’s impressive aesthetic ignites a male infatuation that will both mire Sparsholt’s life and carry the novel. Sparsholt is an engineer and athlete training for the RAF, and is embroiled in sexual scandal from the outset thanks to the ‘rhythmical creaking’ from his room during visits from his to-be wife, Connie. Sparsholt’s blatant heterosexuality seems to only fuel the intrigue as Green, Dax, and Goyle each fall into pursuit of Sparsholt in their own ways. Between the suggestive war time black-outs, this competition is won by Dax, and recorded as told to Green. Sparsholt is doused in secrecy and scandal, spoken about in the same way neighbours may trade gossip in whispers before an inevitable disgrace.

Leaving Sparsholt’s war to occur in the part break, the novel now jumps to 1965, where Freddie Green’s literary journal has been replaced with a contemporary yet equally insightful narrative from the perspective of Johnny, Sparsholt’s adolescent son. Sparsholt is now a war-hero and established industrialist, married to Connie. Together with Connie, Johnny, French exchange student Bastien, and the Haxbys, the story moves to summertime in Cornwall. The Cornish setting allows air to two flames: that between David Sparsholt and the noisome Clifford Haxby, conducted in secrecy yet with a recklessness that makes one’s stomach turn somersaults, and simultaneously for Johnny – the typically sexually repressed English teen – who is besotted with his liberal French counterpart, Bastien. Should Johnny not have been so consumed by his own pubescent crush, he might have had warning of the scandal his family was on course for.

The story jumps again, this time into Evert Dax’s house in London post the 1967 decriminalisation of homosexuality. We re-connect with Evert as Johnny Sparsholt, now a strapping young gay man, enters Evert’s house as an art restorer. Oblivious to the relationship once shared between his father and the paunchy old art enthusiast, Johnny is both eager to gain a place in the gay scene based at Cranley Gardens and naïve about the intentions of those around him. We learn that the actual Sparsholt affair that was so pregnant in the previous setting has been and gone between parts, and we turn the pages in eagerness for a climax, trembling for the revelations that might come with it.

But Hollinghurst holds back, denying us any juicy details, giving us only scraps: ‘money, power, gay shenanigans…it had everything!’ This is somewhat frustrating, as up until this point the reader has been led to believe the explosiveness of the affair was the carrot we’d been patiently chasing. Once the disappointment abates, however, the Sparsholt Affair morphs away from a legacy instead into a story of life’s vice and drama, particularly for gay men in a liberated London. It is a generational comparison, pulling a colourful contrast of experience from each side of 1967.

By the 90s we are led by Lucy, the child (born in the part-break) of Johnny and a lesbian couple who had requested him to ‘do a baby for us’. We see Johnny finally in the new millennium, where parenting and dating apps have again revolutionized the gay landscape. Johnny does his best to adapt, as a successful portrait painter who suffers love, loss, and reincarnation.

As a first-time reader of Hollinghurst, his tendency to let pivotal scenes happen between the parts can leave you feeling crestfallen, but the Sparsholt Affair withstands these temporary disappointments as one begins to recognize the larger, comedic, and charming design of the story.

Reviewed by Abbie Treloar

The Sparsholt Affair
by Alan Hollinghurst
Published by Pan Macmillan
ISBN 9781509844937

Book Review: The Pacific Affair by Gary Paul Stephenson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_pacific_affairCharming yet flawed, The Pacific Affair by Gary Paul Stephenson is an entertaining read that tackles a dramatic and ever-pertinent concept, yet is let down by editorial errors and attention to the wrong kind of detail. If you are a patient reader sympathetic to encouraging new authors, read this book: if you are not, give it a skip.

The Pacific Affair introduces resourceful hero Charles Langham whose personal mission is to force stagnant politicians and international organisations to act over climate change, poverty, and (somewhat out of sync) the South American drug trade. After issuing the United Nations with an ultimatum of consequences for failure to change course, Langham garners the ready support of the vast majority of nations but makes an enemy of the President of the United States of America. Pitted against the arguably most powerful man on the planet, Langham and his team must uncover the President’s adversary motivations whilst also outrunning and outsmarting the US Navy and the President’s Special Ops team. The more Langham’s team discover, the murkier the waters become. Based on board Langham’s super yacht, the journey follows the Sundancer from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, spanning from Panama to the Amazon to Tonga and beyond. While Langham’s unlimited cash, expertise, and good fortune felt incredible at times, the relevance of the theme negated these simplicities, leaving a framework for a thrilling story.

While Stephenson has a flair for imagination, the devil is not in the detail in The Pacific Affair. Stephenson haphazardly introduces a rambling cast of characters and has a tendency for lengthy descriptions of the interior design of insignificant rooms. The narrative could do without the clutter. The novel is also littered with editorial errors and formatting inconsistencies that could kill the enjoyment for grammar-sticklers. If Stephenson were able to tighten up these issues in the next novel in the Charles Langham series, the reader could fully let go and fall into the promising narrative.

Adding a bittersweet charm to The Pacific Affair is the knowledge that Stephenson suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, which he shares with the novel’s hero, Charles Langham. MS affects people in different ways, but can have physical effects such as poor balance, slurred speech, spasms, and fatigue, as well effects on a person’s memory, thinking, and emotions. Langham’s MS affliction gives the character a realness that is rare in hero figures, although the effects of the disease could have been amplified. Both Stephenson and Langham’s efforts are enormous feats for MS-suffers, which may help as encouragement for those living with the disease and also serves to help raise awareness about Multiple Sclerosis.

In a political climate that is questioning the establishment repeatedly, demanding a new breed of politicians to act in the interests of the common people, the concept shaping The Pacific Affair is important and absorbing. While a dose of patience may be required, Stephenson’s well-intended The Pacific Affair is compelling.

Reviewed by Abbie Treloar

The Pacific Affair
by Gary Paul Stephenson
Published by Lang Book Publishing
ISBN 9780994129062

Book Review: Earthly Remains, by Donna Leon

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_earthly_remainsDonna Leon shows mastery in sewing together this delightful crime thriller Earthly Remains which is set under the vivid heat of the Venetian sun. With an engaging and charming narrative, the 26th Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery will add intrigue to a sun-soaked holiday or transport you away on a lazy rainy day.

Following a foolhardy reaction in the interrogation of a slippery suspect, Commissario Brunetti finds himself on a prescribed hiatus from duty. Questioning his judgment and contemplating a change in lifestyle, Brunetti gladly banishes himself to the empty house of a distant relative in the Venetian laguna for some time out. The house, on the island of Saint Erasmo, is tended for by gentle caretaker Davide Casati, who Brunetti quickly befriends. Forged over ten days beneath the stifling sun, the two men form an easy friendship based on a shared passion for rowing and an unspoken mutual respect for one another. Casati appears a man of grace and radiates a strong sense of morality, yet Brunetti soon notices hints of a markedly different man lingering in Casati’s past. When Casati suddenly goes missing, Brunetti is compelled to unravel the loops and ties sullying his new friend’s disappearance.

Leon weaves Brunetti through the laguna with a beautifully economical narrative that lets the reader feel the oppressive swelter of summertime Venice and taste the richness of the Italian alfresco table whilst nimbly unravelling the truth behind Casati’s disappearance. On the small islands where ‘there are no secrets’ Brunetti must now follow his hunches to uncover the mysterious past of a man he barely knew. But the truth is not quite ready to give itself up.

Serving as my introduction to Donna Leon’s mystery series, I sincerely hope Commissario Guido Brunetti discovered reinforcement for the job he so loved over the course of Earthly Remains: I will be keeping an eye out for more in the series in airport bookstores as the perfect accompaniment to a holiday.

Reviewed by Abbie Treloar

Earthly Remains
by Donna Leon
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN 9781785151378

Book Review: Give us this Day, by Helena Wisniewska Brow

Available at bookstores nationwide.

Workshopped at Wellington’s very own International Institute ofcv_give_us_this_day Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington, and the subsequent winner of the 2013 Adam Prize, Give us this Day is a personal project & labour of love, a work that offers readers value, in history, in entertainment, and by enriching our city of Wellington.

Give us this Day weaves a tale between the Wisniewski’s family-life in Wellington and father Stefan’s journey of exile from Poland to New Zealand during World War II. At the hands of the Communist USSR Stefan, along with his mother, brothers, & sisters were rounded up by Soviet soldiers in 1941 & transported from Poland to Siberia & south through the Soviet Socialist Republics to the Caspian Sea via cattle train. Twelve years old when exiled from his homeland, Stefan’s memories are often hazy, but there is one detail he cannot forget: the hunger. Constant & unyielding, Stefan recalls how hunger drove the Wisniewski family to make soup from grass & forage for seeds and edible plants whenever their train stopped, risking missing its unpredictable departure. When the USSR joined the Allies in 1941, the Polish Army was (temporarily) allowed to form, and Stefan & his brothers signed up, motivated by access to rations. The Wisniewski family were soon shipped to Iran – thankfully, as those who remained saw the insincerity of the Soviet promise for amnesty. From Iran, the Rt. Hon. Peter Fraser’s wife, Janet, displayed a great act of compassion, offering 733 Polish children refuge in New Zealand, and on the morning of October 31, 1944, the General Randall arrived in Wellington harbour. Scores of Wellingtonians turned out to greet the exiled Polish children, who would grow up to become “self-sufficient, hard-working loyal citizens… together with their families.”

It is a lofty task to write a family history & memoir that holds interest to an audience beyond one’s relatives & friends, but Give us this Day is masterful in making the Wisniewski story one that all can applaud. I warmed up to the memoir much like Wisniewska Brow’s first head-long dive into her family history in Poland – with apprehension & little understanding – but as the story developed & the characters took form, the memoir transformed from an account into a highly readable story. Wisniewska Brow subtly spins her family members into readable characters, without oversimplification, and threads us through the backdrops of Poland, Siberia, & Iran with grace, without exploiting the tragedy of such locations during the Second World War. Wisniewska Brow’s finesse for her craft is again demonstrated by the contrast of confusion & frustration early in the book & the serenity that is emitted by the final pages. Wisniewska Brow’s research, travel, & expression through writing has clearly resolved something for Helena − but, like all good stories, whatever is resolved for Helena, she has resisted a neat bow-tie finale for the reader.

Upon finishing Give us this Day, I ran along the Wellington waterfront at dawn for the umpteenth time, and as I approached Frank Kitts Park, wreaths of red flowers beneath a plaque caught my eye. I had never paused to read this plaque, but thanks to the red flowers this particular morning my brain yielded a result − sure enough, engraved on the wall right there in front of me, the plaque remembered the plight of “The Polish children of Pahiatua.” The anniversary of Stefan & the Polish children’s arrival in Wellington in 1944 had passed over the weekend. And I now knew the incredible story behind this plaque, a plaque that flocks of Wellingtonians hurry or saunter past daily, and that story suddenly made my environment, our city, the history of our country & its diverse inhabitants profoundly deeper.

Give us this Day, the Wisniewski story, told through Stefan by Helena, is a delicately crafted work that reads of a history less charted (and delighting for that), is a pleasure to read, and is a story all Wellingtonians should know.

By Abbie Treloar

Give us this Day
by Helena Wisniewska Brow
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739681

Book Review: You should have come when you were not here, by Brannavan Gnanalingam

Available now in some bookstores

For those of us like myself and Brannavancv_you_should_have_come_here_when Gnanalingam, who adore the nooks and crannies of history and have found Paris too lacklustre, instead hosting a city of loneliness, You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here will be a story to relate to and sympathise with. It tells the lonely tale of Veronica, a thirty-something asexual female journalist from New Zealand who travels to Paris late as a freelance journalist only to find the city indifferent to and from her.

Veronica is a lonesome (although not lonely) and apathetic character whose disdain for adhering to mainstream activities takes the story to obtuse and more interesting experiences of the lovers’ city. Veronica’s story depicts some of Paris’ least commendable areas, people, and tendencies, and is studded with historical footnotes, often expertly woven as mysterious characters drawn from Paris’ long and intricate history, moonlighting almost as figments of Veronica’s unconventional imagination. Gnanalingam has his own unique flair, and it is his creative storytelling – raw and economical, painting beautifully truthful pictures – that most draws the reader in. Though I would not recommend it to the rose-tinted Paris-virgin (for fear of killing romantic enthusiasm), those who have experienced Paris enough to both love and lament the elegant city will find the writing sufficiently quirky and entertaining, and the tale best left to permeate.

Gnanalingam set out to write a more austere account of Paris, to balance out the city’s excessive amorous embellishments in popular culture. Sometimes I think people say they loved Paris simply because it is pas acceptable to say one didn’t find it to his liking. You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here dares to defy the rose-tinted glasses and reveals the reality of Paris: sometimes this is glamorous and elegant, but more often it depicts exactly what Gnanalingam aimed for: “a segregated, austere, and above all, disorientating place.”   paris_dark

Despite the intelligent charm of Gnanalingam’s writing and his honest depictions of Paris, one cannot help but feel frustrated by the absolute inaction and apathy of Veronica, who, having spent ten years managing to get to Europe, now spends months in Paris without making any proper friends or money or accomplishments. Veronica actively avoids the main sites of Paris with a sort of hipster high-brow, while managing to achieve little else anyway. Veronica is clearly most comfortable on her own, but her lack of revered relationships with anybody in the city – even family and friends from home – is difficult to swallow, especially given the lack of anything else of substance in her Parisian life. If Veronica is surprised at Paris’ indifference to her, she does little to demonstrate that shock, and nor does she adapt or try to change it.

The finale of a quaint and delicately-woven story either mars or saves it: the twist is stomach churning and dégoûtable, but essentially shock lifts the story and leaves the reader turning the tale over on your tongue and in your mind. You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here is a lonely tale but Gnanalingam’s artistic writing will keep you turning pages and the book will transpire a heavy sense of contemplativeness. In a good way.

Review by Abbie Treloar

You should have come when you were not here
by Brannavan Gnanalingam
Published by Lawrence & Gibson Publishing collective
ISBN Unknown