The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

The Line of Beauty is one of those rare LGBT books that achieve mainstream recognition. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2004. I heard about it when it did, but I put off reading it for a long time because I was put off by the plot. It is about a young gay white man who lives with a conservative MP and his family. The book spans roughly four years, between 1983 and 1987, when the Tory party under Thatcher were in power and the AIDS epidemic was in full flow. The conservative MP that he lives with is a junior minister, and his family has its own problems. When I first heard about it, I was put off by the idea of reading about conservative sleaze. I then read one of Hollinghurst’s other novels, The Swimming Pool Library, and enjoyed it, so I then decided if I had the chance I would give this one a go.

Last week I found a second hand copy of the novel, started reading about it, and then finished it last night. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t think it was as good as other Man Booker winners I have read. It is well written, and develops its characters and the story well, but I didn’t feel anything profound after reading it. It felt like I was just witnessing a family saga, and the stakes were not raised until the penultimate chapter, when the consequences of the family saga were completely predictable. The main factor in the novel’s favour was that it was incredibly well-written and absorbing, but I felt very little emotional attachment to it. I suppose I appreciated the artistry of the novel, but didn’t feel an emotional attachment to any of it.

I found The Swimming Pool Library a much better novel, and when I read The Line of Beauty, I began to suspect that Hollinghurst won a sort of legacy award. I think he probably should have won it for his first novel, but it wasn’t the climate to award it that year. So their was an emotional desire to award him the prize the next time he’d done something half decent. There are similar examples in other fields, such as when Ryan Giggs won the player of the year (even though it was not his best season, or the best player that season), and when Heath Ledger won a posthumous Academy Award for his Batman performance, when he should have won it for Brokeback Mountain.

That said, it is a good book. Alan Hollinghurst is one of the few truly acclaimed LGBT authors, and I will be reading more of his novels in due time. In the same bookstore where I bought The Line of Beauty I also found a signed copy of another of his books, The Spell, so that will be the next of his on the list, although not the next LGBT novel I read.


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