Today I finished reading Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty; I wasn’t expecting to be impressed by it, as I had already read The Stranger’s Child and found it to be rather dull reading. However, this really exceeded my expectations and I finished it within 48 hours.
I found the context of the novel to be particularly interesting. Set in the 1980’s with the ever present figure of Thatcher, she does not dominate the text- even on the occasion where she appears in it- but she is always present. The novel (to me) offers a critique of Thatcherism from a different perspective. As The Line of Beauty takes place mainly in the wealthy parts of London (with the occasional manor house and French holiday home), it offers a critique of Thatcherism from the perspective of the wealthy. The characters become more corrupt and selfish as the years progress; even the middle class protagonist Nick has gone from being jealous to outright grasping and envious.
It offers an ugly portrait of neoliberal ideals, from the very people who benefited from them. There is, of course, literature which shows the perspectives of the poor who were most affected by the Thatcher regime, but I think Hollinghurst does well to show another viewpoint. He often shows snapshots of conversation between Conservatives, discussing policy and their opinions on Thatcher; although this is not to say that the novel is dominated with right-wing views, there are plenty of people who are shown to disagree.
Thatcherism is not the only controversial theme which Hollinghurst writes of, the third part of the novel is set against the onset of AIDS. It sees one character die of the virus and another deteriorating from it before the novel draws to a close. Hollinghurst offers a honest depiction of the onset of a disease which we still have a reason to fear, without being tactless.
Hollinghurst seems to portray love as not having a chance in 1980’s England. The protagonist begins as a naive, but ends up partaking in drug fueled threesomes before long. Catherine, the manic depressant MP’s daughter, attracts men from all walks of life and manages success with none of them. There are failed engagements, affairs, and plenty more but no actual successful relationship. Even Nick’s parents, living outside of London, are revealed to sleep in separate beds. Indeed, the only content character seems to be the bachelor, Lord Kessler.
By showing love to be universally a failure, in the world of the novel, Hollinghurst really sheds a damning light on the hypocrisy of heterosexual relationships. The heterosexual people do not fully accept Nick’s homosexuality, and often he is viewed as being inferior for it, yet they are incapable of keeping corruption from seeping into their own lives.
After being so impressed with The Line of Beauty I think I will give some of his other novels a try; his style of writing is not necessarily what I always go for in modern writers, but on this occasion I was impressed.