One man, a web that spans across the decades: The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst
The Sparsholt Affair is a time-spanning, character-focused novel typical of Hollinghurst full of charm and understated secrets. It moves through time from Oxford during the Second World War to end up in the modern day London of dating apps and finding scandal via internet searches. David Sparsholt is an athletic newcomer to Oxford, a place caught in a strange position during the war, one of blackouts and spies and secrets. He only spends one term there, but it is long enough to form connections that will resonate across the decades, mixed up in a world of attraction and art.
The narrative structure is similar to The Stranger’s Child, moving through time to make moments turn from present action to past hearsay and rumour. Despite the initial Oxford setting, this is less of a rarified upper class country set than that earlier novel, more focused around artists, pictures, and a changing world for gay men. The first section, in which a group of friends are drawn into an obsession with a new arrival, is particularly engaging, and sets up a solid basis for the later unfurling events. The characters are varied and charming and as with the best of Hollinghurst’s previous novels are the reason the book is hard to put down (along with the understated secrets and ambiguity of the time jumps).
Hollinghurst fans will likely be delighted with this new novel, which blends the best elements of his writing and manages to bring in more modern elements like dating apps too. For those who know his work less well, this novel is an exercise in using a twentieth century period setting to both show changing societal attitudes and give characters various ups and downs across their lives.