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Old 19th Oct 2004, 22:53   #1
John Self
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Default Alan Hollinghurst: The Line of Beauty

(My Amazon review, just submitted, hence references to other reviews etc.: )

Alan Hollinghurst's Booker win for The Line of Beauty is deserved on the basis that his second novel, The Folding Star, probably should have won ten years ago, so this is a late recompense. I'm not sure it's the best book on the shortlist (I preferred Colm T├│ib├*n's The Master), but it's certainly a return to form for Hollinghurst after the underdone and clumsy The Spell.

The plot, such as it is, is well summed up by others: naive 20-year-old man (boy, really) lodges with Tory MP and his family at the height of Margaret Thatcher's power, from 1983 to 1987. Has various love affairs with various men and gets treated badly by the wicked Conservative family in the end. Its appeal of course is not in the plot, nor in the childish notion (espoused by a reviewer below) that characters should be likeable to make a book readable. It's in the writing: Hollinghurst is one of the best stylists there is, effortlessly tossing off scraps of description (Thatcher's "beaked and crowned" head) that others would kill for. He's also capable of punctuating the beautiful prose with brilliant jokes, which somehow have all the more force for their appearance in such carefully weighted sentences and structures.

This is enough to be going on with. However at 500 pages the book does occasionally drag, and I couldn't help feeling that - like Cloud Atlas on the Booker shortlist, but unlike T├│ib├*n's fully achieved The Master - the whole was somewhat less than the sum of the parts, and that it was four parts achievement and one part momentum (and don't we anyway tend to praise a long book simply because we have got through it?); but for me the tipping point wasn't quite reached. I also admit, with full philistine shame, that main character Nick's constant displays of erudition on Henry James, the ogee (the 'line of beauty' of the title) and other things besides could have been a little less frequent for my liking. It may be, of course, that it's a grower and a keeper, but at 500 pages, you'll forgive me if I leave it a couple of years before I try to find out.
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Old 20th Oct 2004, 8:03   #2
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There was obviously not much given for viewers to go on in the Booker programme last night but from the scraps of text we were given from each book, I thought Alan Hollinghurst would win. It contained the 'beaked and crowned' bit and was effortlessly lyrical but comprehensible. The others, even David Mitchell's bt, sounded pedestrian.
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Old 20th Oct 2004, 9:25   #3
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I thought they presented David Mitchell's extract very poorly: it was literally a sentence or half a sentence from each of the six stories within the novel, giving no sense of coherence at all.
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Old 20th Oct 2004, 10:44   #4
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To be honest I haven't read any of them and had only heard of Cloud Atlas through your own efforts. That said the excerpt of TLOB about the hero having a twirl with the Iron Lady did seem to be a wonderfully surreal moment at least the equal of Renton swimming in the toilet searching for his methodone.
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Old 4th Dec 2004, 20:33   #5
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Default The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

An outstanding novel indeed, truly a magnificent piece of work, a novel deserving of praise and the recognition that the Booker 2004 prize gives it. Brilliantly written, Alan Hollinghurst could describe the back of a cornflake packet and it would be interesting, the descriptive passages coupled with a witty yet fully engaging character dialogue make this novel a real reading pleasure. Undoubtedly homo- erotic in places, sometimes graphically so, the narrative never goes too far into the lurid to make reading uncomfortable; in fact the whole Gay experience is so well handled, so efficiently written with the exemplary narrative that it is a delight to have the whole experience of - for me- a hitherto shadowy world of homosexual life made crystal clear. Hollinghurst's main character lives in eighties London and the eighties are summed up to perfection in everyway - all the images of the eighties are there, the Tories with Margaret Thatcher, Stockbrokers, Yuppies drinking champagne and snorting cocaine. Yet all those stereotypes (if they are stereotypes for one can find these reference points easily in any history of eighties Britain) don't appear to make the narrative clich├ęd at all, especially if one has first hand knowledge of the eighties in London.

The main character Nick has an awakening in the early eighties and we see his rise through the eighties to his decline. The characters in the novel appear to match the times so perfectly - the dawning of the Thatcher age, the rise and rise and then the inevitable fall - summing up the eighties so well indeed. Like looking forward to a huge party, the feeling of great things happening, the party and then the hangover and the cold light of day. Pleasure seemingly without consequence hedonism taken to extreme - there is creeping inevitability to the story and the reader is drawn along as many were in those strange days 20 years ago. The characters start so well with so much to look forward to and they are swept along in the social whirlwind that just so perfectly sums up the age. Sexual awakenings help along the mood of a new age and the heady mix of sex, drugs and wealth beyond limit attract the characters like moths to a flame. Funny yet poignant too I was drawn into the world so brilliantly described by the author, the seasons that change in London match the mood as the narrative eases along, never hurrying to the inevitable conclusion that becomes clear to the reader. I couldn't help but warm to the characters and really feel for them but I couldn't warn them so I too was taken on the journey as well. I felt so superbly engaged with the characters all through the narrative that the plot , thin as it really is didn't matter at all, the characters mattered most of all. Genuinely warm and funny as well the narrative never lingers to allow time for reflection, I fear that if the pace slowed we may see the profligacy, the self-denial or delusion even that runs as a counter thread throughout the novel.

Many reviewers have said that this novel sums up the eighties - it does and does it so well that one is there in the heart of Thatcher's Britain in London's Kensington. The perfection of the eighties rise and fall is mirrored in the lives of the characters drawn for us by the author. I haven't read such an engaging, entertaining and highly evocative novel for a long time. References to Henry James abound - the title is explained by James references in the narrative yet the whole Line of Beauty runs seamlessly throughout - sexual references, the lines of Coke and the fine line between families, loyalty and secrets. Superb in every sense though its eighties references and graphic homosexuality may make it not suitable for every reader I for one feel that it must go into my most favourite list of books. I could not find fault with any aspect though I may too have been carried away as those were in the eighties so perhaps within the novel is a greater lesson for the reader, one of restraint, its hard to fathom. But then again when the nineties came along like a hangover the eighties did seem like a big party gone wrong!!. A must read for all!!
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Old 4th Dec 2004, 20:40   #6
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Mike,
Thanks for the review. I have this book on my wish list at Amazon. I hadn't heard from anyone who had read it. Glad to hear you liked it.
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Old 4th Dec 2004, 20:56   #7
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I hope the novel can make the transition to a US reader - the 80's in britain was a strange time indeed!

It really is superb though!
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Old 4th Dec 2004, 22:06   #8
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I liked it too Maggie - my review is here.
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Old 5th Dec 2004, 10:19   #9
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#Gonna have a spolier or two - oo gonna have a spolier or two#


I thought the pace was just right , the rise of Nick , the plateau then the fall . You could easily veiw him as a cokehead freeloader whose behaviour had he been caught cottaging whilst carrying coke could have destroyed the family much earlier on.

But thats the whole point - pleasure without consequence , like the the MP's money by nefarious means and his affair right under everyones noses.Disaster waiting to happen in fact . Though he started out OK it becomes clear he is quite selfish but he doesn't see it - his fall in the end though inevitable was hard to take.
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Old 12th Feb 2005, 21:23   #10
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I was inspired by this review to ask for this book for Christmas. I finished it in the beginning of January and have only found the time now to comment.

I read The Swimming Pool Library by Hollinghurst a number of years ago, and remember thinking then that if he could write a novel that was just a little bit more mainstream and not so Gay focused, then he would be very successful.

He is a beautiful writer and I agree wholeheartedly with your (Mike) comments about the characters and how very well drawn they were. Very much like real life, the plot matters much less than the people who are a part of your world.

But I would say that the story went on a bit too long, and like John S., I think it dragged in parts. And actually, by the end, I was happy to see Nick fall; what a condescending, freeloading snob! And yet, I was a bit sorry for him, as I don't think he realised these traits in himself. However, he ends up relatively unscathed and I wouldn't be surprised to see him pop up in another novel, it's like his story is not finished.

I would rank the book .

It did, however, inspire me to return to Henry James, whom I haven't read in years.

I just finished Washington Square- brilliant! I'll post a review if I get some time.

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