The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

Sparsholt AffairThe Sparsholt Affair chronicles a clutch of friends and their associations with a father, and more specifically his son, through 1940 college camaraderie, future scandal, the free-wheeling 1970s, and recent times.

David Sparsholt is the namesake of the title, a gorgeous young man whose brief presence at Oxford University sparks the interests of two other students – Peter Coyle, an artist who wants to sketch David, and Evert Dax, the son of a then-renowned writer. Coyle is less inhibited and more flippant in his desire for David;  Evert is clearly infatuated with him.  It’s Freddie Green, the clear-eyed older friend of them all, who takes in their transgressions.

Flash forward to the mid-1960s, when David and his family are vacationing in Cornwall.  His teenage son Johnny is the main character in this section – he struggles with adolescent angst,  his own sexuality, and a painful crush on a French exchange student who doesn’t reciprocate.

Johnny is next in his early twenties and slowly understanding his own desirability.  As an apprentice art restorer, he meets with and befriends some of his father’s old college cohorts, including Evert and  Freddie.  It’s with a much younger lover of Evert’s that he learns the hard lessons of lust and disinterest.

Age and time catch up with them all.  There are quiet moments where Johnny and his father connect as best as they can.  David is a product of his generation – a war hero and successful businessman who doesn’t quite understand his son and how he is.  But, considering the subject of the scandal that underpins the novel, it’s possible that David understands all too well.

Although most of its characters are gay, The Sparsholt Affair is a long study of momentary emotions that could easily apply to anyone who has felt uncertainty, rejection, or the pall of the past.  I wouldn’t call the book plot-driven, although things do unravel on their own time.  Reading the book is an endeavor that requires quiet.

With that as a disclaimer, Hollinghurst writes beautifully and with occasional biting bit.  The book is very British in tone, and it helps to know the social changes that happened there during the timeline of the book.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

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A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

This book took awhile to catch on for me.  I started it at least three or four times, and thea place called winter beginning didn’t grab me.  Just needed to get through the first twenty pages – and I’m now glad that I read the book.

Harry Cane is a privileged and shy Englishman who marries well, has a child – and then is forced to leave his life of leisure for the prairies of Saskatchewan after having an illicit affair with a man.

On Harry’s ship journey to Canada, he encounters a number of privileged dandies who approach their homesteading futures as a lark in the country.  He also meets the notorious Troels Munck, a deal maker and lecherous soul whose destiny becomes bound up with Harry’s.

Harry, green as he is to farm work, approaches it wisely with foresight.  He spends a year laboring on the farm of Munck’s brother-in-law, and then gets his own quarter section through some under-the-table conniving from Munck.

Through the back-breaking work of making his own home, Harry finds a type of redemption not found in the upper class circles of his previous life.  To be sure, he misses his family sorely.  But the wide open spaces of western Canada and their rhythms of life become his life, far more deeply than his previous experiences.  Harry also finds love of a sort, but the threat of war beyond his small community soon tears at anything he holds dear.

The storyline is not entirely linear, and I think this was a stumbling block for me.  The book begins with Harry in some kind of wretched asylum – apparently he has either committed some type of crime or experienced a horrific act.  He is then transferred into a gentler, albeit experimental facility.

As you keep reading, the institutional chapters, presented almost as flashbacks, are instead more present-day to the time of the book’s ending.

A Place Called Winter is a historical novel that covers many things – the social mores of Edwardian England, homesteading in Canada, World War I, racism, gay and lesbian/gender issues, etc.  I wound up enjoying it very much, and got very emotionally involved with the characters.

As I mentioned, the book began slowly, but keep with it; A Place Called Winter proved to be a rewarding read.  This situation reminds me of another book from twenty years ago that also started out slowly but turned out to be one of my favorite books – Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.

(William Hicks, Information Services)