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

Advertisements

Book Review: Force of Nature, by Jane Harper

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_force_of_natureThis is the much-anticipated second novel from Jane Harper. Her debut, The Dry, won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and the film rights were snapped up. Jane Harper lives in Melbourne and has worked as a print journalist in Australia and the UK for thirteen years.  I loved her debut and was keen to see if her second novel was as engaging. I was not disappointed.

In Force of Nature, we once again meet Aaron Faulk, a Federal Police Agent working in the rugged outback of Australia (he in The Dry, and too good to be a one-novel wonder). He is asked to help to search for a woman missing in the bush. While five women embark on a corporate team building exercise, only four make it out three days later. For Faulk, this is more than a missing person case, as the woman is his key source for an investigation into her employer’s dealings.

Faulk is a man troubled by his past, a little of which was exposed in The Dry. We again glimpse his background through a series of tramping maps left to him by his late father. These maps include the area of the search, and Faulk is forced to recall his memories and ] re-evaluate his ideas about his father.

The Australian landscape is very much a part of this story. The bush, the mountains and the struggle to exist in a small town. I like Harper’s style. She keeps the pace up but manages to capture patterns of speech and the guilt of survivors. As the story unravels, we discover all is not as it first appears. There are tensions within the family company, and suspicions among the staff. This is the stuff of an excellent crime novel.

Force of Nature is a great Australian crime novel because we are drawn into a world where land and man work together to reveal the truth. This is the Christmas novel that will be passed around our family and never actually make it back to me.

by Kathy Watson

Force of Nature
by Jane Harper
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781743549094

Book Review: To the Bright Edge of the World, by Eowyn Ivey

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

to_the-bright_edgeBeautiful writing depends on many factors: a desire to tell a good tale, interesting characters, a challenging setting, but above all, an ability to weave words through a landscape. Eowyn Ivey has done all this and more in her novel of exploration, love and cultural sensitivity s\set in Alaska in the late nineteenth century.

We find Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester commissioned to forge a new trail up the Wolverine River to the Yukon. While these place names may now be familiar after the gold rush, they were home to tribes and spirits from another time when he set off with his small group of men. The harsh environment plays an important role in this story, as do the tribes who cling to their seasonal territories. The relationship between explorer and Indian is based on a trust which is easily upset.

Left behind is Forrester’s young bride, Sophie. She also faces loss, loneliness and the pressure to resist her own intellectual curiosity. Her decision to develop her interest  in photography shows the challenges women faced when deciding to pursue activities beyond home and hearth.

The framing of the narrative is superbly achieved as an elderly relative of the Forresters’ seeks to archive the remaining family documents, back in the Wolverine territory. An unlikely friendship develops between the elderly, Walt, and Josh, the young curator of the museum, himself a Wolverine descendant.
A series of catalogue entries of artefacts and photographs as well as contemporary documents are interspersed between the chapters. This adds an air of authenticity which is deserved, as the research for this book was extensive.

I enjoyed the simultaneous stories and the way they all came together to create such a beautiful tale. Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel The Snow Child gave promise of more good reads to come. I was not disappointed.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

To the Bright Edge of the World
by Eowyn Ivey
Published by Tinder Press
ISBN 9781472208613

Book Review: This Must Be The Place, by Maggie O’Farrell

cv_this_must_be_the_place_smlAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Some people have complicated lives, complex families and confusing memories. Daniel O’Sullivan is one such person, and while he is a New Yorker by birth, this love story is set mainly in the wilds of Ireland. Throughout the book, we follow his journey to discover what really matters in his life. His marriage to a reclusive ex-movie star adds mystery to the tale and it takes some time to unravel his children and hers, his friends and her secrets, his mistakes and her quirkiness.

Maggie O’Farrell has written a sophisticated book which draws you into a love story with a difference. I am always surprised to see how a writer gets inside relationships and identifies the issues which surface years in to the partnership. It is not obvious where this story will lead and the changes of location as well as the people on the journey add variety to the telling.

Daniel is a linguist who embraces change in language, and wonderful words are very much a part of this story. While he lectures on words, he himself struggles to use language clearly to communicate feelings. This reticence leaves confusion behind, and the events of his childhood and time at university, need to be re interpreted to find the real truth.

I thoroughly enjoyed the world painted between the covers. I love language and found it being used superbly to captivate me over a cold winter week in bleak Christchurch.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

This Must be the Place
by Maggie O’Farrell
Published by Tinder PRess
ISBN 9780755358830

Marlon James: A History in Seven Killings, at #AWF16

marlon_jamesGetting to listen to Marlon James talk about himself and his book, A Brief History of Seven Killings, winner of the coveted Man Booker Prize in 2015, made for a very good reason to rise early this Saturday morning. A very intelligent and thoughtful conversation flowed  naturally from the stage, punctuated by funny remarks, insightful comments, and thought-provoking discussions. As though this great novel wasn’t riveting enough, hard enough to put down, James himself was a joy to listen to, a voice I could happily hear in conversation for many hours.

Half a year on from his winning of the Man Booker Prize, James was asked to reflect on his experience, and interestingly enough he turned to the other authors on the shortlist, saying that the dust won’t settle until the next recipient of the award is announced. Instead he says that he thinks of the other works nominated and how reading them is an important part of the experience.

a brief history in seven killingsThe conversation between James and Noelle McCarthy moved from the novel, to his personal life and experiences, and to Jamaica and its culture and history. A Brief History of Seven Killings is brought together by the shooting of Bob Marley in 1976, an event that James, despite talking in great detail about it, says wasn’t introduced into the novel until he realized it was a common point between the characters. Instead this novel is driven by voice, and unlike his previous novel, The Book of Night Women, it uses many different voices. This change in style reflects many different elements in the story and form, and the ideas James engages with. He says that “the only voice I was not interested in was mine,” and so he used different voices and characters to express different desires and a changing point of view about a single point of history.

James also says that this novel was a new experience for him, and not only because of the change in narrative voice. One of his most famous quotes is “you have to risk pornography,” something he got from when he was told he had to “risk sentimentality” in response to his unwillingness to write about love. This risk is what fiction is all about, a place where we can explore the interesting and visceral, a place of escapism. When asked whether he though of this book as a screenplay, he noted that there is a certain something that he says only the novel form can do, in that it can have a conversation with the reader with the immediacy of the present, haunted by the past, with a fear of the future. “The novel already comes with the fourth wall down.”

As the session finished, James read a short extract from the novel, bringing moments of laughter and moments of silence from the audience. Overall, this feels like a good representation of James, a mix of all the things that we look for in a great piece of fiction.

Event attended and reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Books:
A Brief History of Seven Killings, published by Oneworld Publications, ISBN 9781780746357
John Crow’s Devil, published by Oneworld Publications, ISBN 9781780748498 The Book of Night Women, published by Oneworld Publication, ISBN 9781780746524

Book Review: The Other Mrs Walker, by Mary Paulson-Ellis

Image

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_other_mrs_walkerOn a cold, dark, Christmas night, in the depths of a Scottish winter, an old lady dies alone, surrounded by her meagre treasures in a rundown small flat. Two weeks later, a woman in the midst of her own life crisis arrives to try and find a name and a family for the lost old lady – and in doing so, finds her own.

Margaret Penny is forty seven, broke, unemployed, and friendless. Reeling from a relationship break-up, she abandons her depressing life in London to return home to her mother’s flat in dark, cold, Edinburgh. With no plans and no prospects, Margaret accepts the offer of a lowly temp job at the Office for Lost People where she is set the task of finding the next-of-kin of a recently deceased elderly woman. The investigation into lonely old Mrs Walker’s sad life leads Margaret to revelations about her own.

This is not a happy tale. Life in Edinburgh is damp, dark, and freezing. This is not Alexander McCall Smith’s quirky handsome Edinburgh. The city is “grey skies, grey buildings, grey pavements all encased in ice. And the people too.” The people of Edinburgh are cold, hardened, and constantly in each other’s business. Margaret is forced to move in with her reclusive mother and, after thirty years of having lived apart, their relationship is strained, to say the least.

“Home. It wasn’t where Margaret’s heart was. But at least it was somewhere to run.” There are long-held grudges and secrets on both sides. Neither woman is in a particularly happy place in her life. “It would be typical to come home for her mid-life crisis, only to discover that her mother’s end-of-life crisis was well under way.”

The story alternates between Margaret’s present-day investigations into the old Mrs Walker, and flashbacks into both Margaret and Mrs Walker’s pasts. The glimpses of life in London during the Blitz are fascinating. From mental asylums to backstreet abortionists, the book takes the reader into rather gritty and depressing places, inhabited by some rather tragic, miserable, and thoroughly unlikeable characters.

This is a bleak but riveting read about families and secrets. It is not at all an uplifting tale but it is one that will have you reflecting on its characters for some time afterwards. An ambitious and layered story from a new Scottish author.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

The Other Mrs Walker
by Mary Paulson-Ellis
Published by Mantle
ISBN 9781447293910

Book Review: Backwards into the Future, by Bronwyn Elsmore

cv_backwards_into_the_FutureAvailable in selected bookshops nationwide.

Bronwyn Elsmore is a New Zealand author, having also written Every Five Minutes and Seventeen Seas. I haven’t read any of her previous books but I am always particularly keen to read New Zealand authors.

Mary, against all her friends’ advice, decides to move back to her home town of Waimamae after many years of living elsewhere in New Zealand. What drew her back were her memories and the people who lived in the small settlement.

Ana was her best friend growing up. They met at primary school, continuing their friendship through secondary and beyond, to both train as nurses. Ana lived with her grandmother Kui and Hemi, a cousin. Kui welcomed this Pakeha friend of her granddaughter in their home, educating her in the ways of Māori tradition and culture. Both girls challenged each other through games and school, with both achieving high marks in University Entrance.

Small towns have more than their share of tragedy and grief with Waimamae being no exception. Grief is shared between cultures, with the community pulling together at such times. The friendship founders at times, and there are secrets and speculation, with a mystery surrounding why Ana started withdrawing from her friend.

Mary goes home to live to try and find answers to some of the questions she has. The town has changed a lot, with many residents long dead, and questions as to where Ana is go unanswered.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Backwards into the Future – a chance to explore Pakeha/Maori relationships within a small town. Friendship is friendship regardless of culture and race.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Backwards into the Future
by Bronwyn Elsmore
Published by Flaxroots Inc.
ISBN 9780992249144