The Line of Beauty is not a book that I would normally pick up in a bookshop – I didn’t know a huge amount about it and my only previous experience of Alan Hollingshurst’s writing (The Stranger’s Child) had not encouraged me to read more. I am therefore very grateful that I trusted the judgement of the Man Booker prize and spontaneously bought a cheap copy. As soon as I had read the first page I knew this was a book which I would be completely absorbed in and continue to think about long after finishing. It is the story of a young, openly gay man in 1980s London who is exploring the possibilities that life currently offers him. Throughout the book Nick Guest, the shy and naive protagonist develops into a mature, worldly-wise adult but he still continues to question and observe in a wistful manner which originally made him endearing. The book opens in the summer that Nick graduates from Oxford and chronicles his time as a lodger with the family of his wealthy friend, Toby Fedden. As he occupies this ill-defined position of both guest and tenant the intricate snobberies of the society he has entered become apparent. Nick joins dinner parties to ‘make up the numbers’ but is privy to all the Feddens’ secret. His sexuality is politely not discussed unless completely necessary but he still remains divorced from those around him as he obviously does not conform to the heterosexual norm of the many weddings he attends.
The book is split into several parts which span the majority of Nick’s twenties and it is striking how each section includes a different cast of characters as people move through his life. As Nick embarks on his first relationship, unsure of who to tell, whether to introduce Leo as his boyfriend or even whether he should introduce him to his other friends I experienced every concern and hope. However, at the start of the second part, several years later, this lack of confidence was gone and replaced by a totally new attitude to relationships. Nick now leads a glamorous lifestyle, fuelled by coke and an insatiable desire for new and luxurious things. The ‘line of beauty’ begins to take on several meanings as his aesthete’s habits focus both on the clear, swirling ironwork of a bed and the white power ordered by a credit card. Inevitably the weight of the AIDs epidemic begins to make itself felt across the pages as 1980s gay London is stricken and Nick is painfully reminded of mortality as lovers and acquaintances quietly grow gaunt. I felt this section was particularly poignant as characters which have long been forgotten or avoided by Nick return and force him to assess his life, both emotionally and philosophically. Just as The Great Gatsby‘s Nick Carraway is unable to relax, throughout The Line of Beauty Nick Guest compares himself to his hosts, friends and acquaintances to his detriment. Lasting attachments appeared to escape Nick throughout the book because he was unable to wholeheartedly trust those who befriended him or did not believe he deserved the love he received. His status as an outsider pervades even his closest relationships.
I wholeheartedly recommend The Line of Beauty as not only does it present a heart wrenching portrait of the reality of being openly gay only two decades after homosexuality had been legalised but it also carefully dissects privileged 1980s British society. I could imagine the power suits and the arrogance which each character wears just as clearly as I felt Nick’s disappointments or expectations. This experience has motivated me to reassess my judgements on other authors who I have dismissed after reading only one of their books. The next author to re-evaluate is Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man and the Sea is one of the least enjoyable or interesting books I have ever read!