My wife read this novel last year, and when I asked her what it was about she said: "Your life in the 1980s." She had a point: like the novel's protagonist Nick Guest, during that decade I lived in London's Notting Hill in one of the large stuccoed houses that back on to vast, private communal gardens.
Also like Nick, I was a recent Oxford English graduate of provincial lower-middle class origins diffidently finding my way in a new, unfamiliar but fascinating social world. We both found ourselves surrounded by members of the capital's haute bourgeoisie, confident and glamorous - lawyers, politicians, bankers, writers, artists, people with titles or grand houses in the country - and their interesting but often oddly damaged children, my contemporaries.
In the first few chapters I almost expected to catch a glimpse of myself in the background, drinking a pint in the Duke of Lonsdale or buying olives from the deli in Elgin Crescent. But Nick has different interests to mine - most notably, he's gay. A large part of the book is concerned with his pursuit of love and sex: his various virginal yearnings for his university friends, his first homosexual encounter (alfresco with a West Indian council worker in the communal gardens), a decadent cocaine-fuelled affair with a spoiled rich boy, and finally coming to terms with Aids, the spectre that increasingly haunted the gay-liberated London of the time.
The novel is also deals with Nick's Brideshead-like love for the Fedden family with whom he lodges while working on his PhD thesis on Henry James: the parents, Gerald Fedden, an energetic, charming Tory MP, with a post in the second Thatcher administration, and his rich wife Rachel; the children, Nick's university friend Toby, and his rebellious, unhappy sister Catherine. This proximity to power and privilege allows Nick to convey some mordant observations of the often monstrous rich and powerful of the Thatcher glory years (though the failings of the often smug and parasitic Nick are more gently treated), but Hollinghurst's assured, confident prose refuses to over-egg either the satirical or the tragic aspects of his story, preferring to present an uncaricatured portrait of that still puzzling time.
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