Alan Hollinghurst
The Line of Beauty

By Isobel Shirlaw

The measured decision to publish The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst's exquisite fourth novel, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher coming to power is an aesthetic choice that could have easily been made by one of the author's own fictional characters.

It is 1983, and a fresh-faced, virginal Nick Guest has just come down from Oxford, invited to spend the summer in the palatial Kensington residence of his university friend and the object of his long-suppressed desire – Toby Fedden, whose father, Gerald, is the bright young star of the Thatcher government. In their absence, the Feddens entrust Nick with the care of their house, and, more significantly, with their daughter Catherine, who has been suffering from suicidal bouts of manic depression.

Slowly, Nick is initiated into an entirely strange and enticing world. By day, he is immersed in the arduous conversations of conservative party politics; by night he is shyly learning to embrace London's thriving underground gay scene. Threesomes with rent-boys nestle snugly between audiences with the Iron Lady.

In one of the first sequences, we see Nick standing beneath a portrait of his, and his creator's, hero – Henry James – whose literary style Nick is examining for a thesis that is never completed. As the chapters progress, he begins to start work on a screenplay of James' The Spoils of Poynton – an artistic endeavour that also fails to bear fruit. In fact, The Line of Beauty reads rather like a self-consciously Jamesian story in itself. Nick is the self-appointed aesthete of the Fedden household – offering beautifully constructed if essentially meaningless maxims to the grand Tory entourage.

He is also conducting an illicit affair with Antoine ('Wani') Ouradi, the son of a Lebanese millionaire, under the pretext of producing an arts magazine entitled Ogee, after the curved lines celebrated in William Hogarth's Analysis of Beauty, from which the novel takes its title. Importantly, though, only one edition of the magazine is published; we know, after witnessing Wani's aids-induced physical deterioration, that no other copy will emerge. It is the fragile legacy of an implosive love-affair – and, indeed, of an entire era.

The gorgeous façade of the house and its inhabitants gradually starts to tarnish as the years progress. Nick's first love dies after contracting the HIV virus from his former lover, and the majestically handsome and acerbic wani dissolves before our eyes. The luxurious, coke-fuelled sex paradise of the early eighties is over.

The story is never resolved and we watch Nick become increasingly alienated. He is eventually excluded from the Kensington walls and is left with the results of a blood-test ominously impending as he contemplates those few to whom his absence might make a difference.

Hollinghurst has crafted an extraordinary work which compels you, after the final page, to return to the beginning and start all over again. It is in itself a piece of erotically charged beauty – a beauty that is made all the more poignant by the fleeting transience of its subject.
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