The Line of Beauty – Alan Hollingshurst

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develops into a mature, worldly-wise adult but he still continues to question and observe in a wistful manner which originally made him endearing.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!

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Dombey and Son – Charles Dickens

If Charles Dickens had been alive in the 21st century I think he is unlikely to have been a novelist but would have been entranced by the possibilities of the screen. The meandering plots of his hefty novels transform easily into TV miniseries and each episode can use the cliffhangers which Dickens tantalised his audiences with. Dombey and Son, published between 1846 and 1848, is no exception to this and its lengthy overarching plots would be worthy of an HBO drama. The story begins in Dickens’ conventional bildungsroman style, as the eponymous son, Paul, is born and struggles through the first years of his life under the weight of his father’s expectations. However, it soon becomes clear that the story cannot remain solely Paul Dombey’s as Dickens includes increasing detailed accounts of the lives of those who surround the little boy. Florence Dombey, Mr Dombey’s elder child, might be ignored by her father but the reader watches her every disappointment and how her young hopes struggle on.

As with all of Dickens’ novels Dombey and Son is awash with eccentric characters and unlikely friendships. Nevertheless no matter how ridiculous an individual might seem the reader quickly comes to know, understand and sympathise with them as Dickens demonstrates that similar worries are experienced throughout social classes and across England.Throughout this cast of characters there are very few who are portrayed as irredeemably evil since there is always an understandable motivation or foible. Mr Dombey’s concern regarding his rank and the standing of his house is not so very different from the boasting of a proud mother or a young man’s nervous entry into the adult world. It is only Mr Carker, the right hand man of Dombey’s business, who becomes even harder to like as aspects of his personality and past are revealed to the reader throughout the novel. In this character I was reminded strongly of Uriah Heep of David Copperfield and I wonder if Charles Dickens had a particular reason for such a strong dislike of stewards and managers.

Although I felt that the book took a while to engage me due to the apparent lack of plot direction this later grew to be a strength. It was completely impossible to predict whether the narrative would twist or forgotten characters would rear their heads again. I’ve struggled to summarise what happens throughout the book as it is so concerned with social situations and conversations that ultimately there is rarely great action scenes. Instead there is shock as Mr Dombey’s fate is decided by a manipulative beggar woman and despair as social pressures force a range of characters to act against their will. They are trapped in their gilded world and it soon becomes apparent that money can be worth very little when love, whether familial or spousal, is not present.

These contemporary illustrations for Dombey and Son perfectly capture the scenes and characters they depict. I was reminded of forgotten moments and characters were exactly how I had imagined them. The characters seem so wrapped up in their worries, and in Mr Dombey’s case self importance, that is difficult to believe that this is a drawing rather than a snapshot of real people living their real lives.

Dombey and Son might not be the best Dickens book to read first as there is less obvious momentum to the storyline to help keep you glued to the 900+ pages but it contains some of my favourite Dickensian characters. As a small example of such favourites; Miss Tox, a lonely spinister, unexpectedly grows in the reader’s estimation throughout the novel as changes from a cruel, small-minded sidekick to someone with ambitious, and unreachable dreams of her own. Captain Cuttle initially seems a ridiculous figure of fun but he clearly cares deeply for the younger characters as they face the everyday dangers of life. The pride of Edith Granger made her both tragic and fascinating as I felt the anger over her powerless position still resonate today. Of course, I also cannot finish this post without mentioning Diogenes the dog who acts exactly like a dog should and clearly enjoys being Florence Dombey’s pampered and beloved mongrel.

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

I’ve been meaning to read Persepolis for some time now as I’m trying to widen my knowledge of graphic novels and the book is often mentioned. From the first page I could tell that this would be a book that I would return to again and again – there is a richness to both the story and the pages that will only be discovered on multiple viewings. The book tells is an autobiographical account of Marjane Satrapi growing up under the shadow of the Iranian theocracy.

The illustration is simple to the extent that it is in black and white but beyond that it inventively echoes scenes visually throughout. Without the imagery the story would be diminished as it brings Iran alive to those who have never had a chance of seeing both public and private aspects of its culture.

Her parents were liberal and encouraged Satrapi to be educated despite the theocracy attempting to cut down on women’s rights both through the enforcement of the veil and a restriction of their movements. Satrapi’s parents eventually send her to Austria in the hope that she can experience freedom there that is no longer possible in Iran but this transition also presents Satrapi with difficulties. This is both a bildungsoman and an exploration of the hidden split in Iranian culture – she chronicles her increasing isolation from both cultures and a struggle to understand her evolving identity. Although she adapts to Western culture as she goes to university, lives in a house of gay men and has a boyfriend Marjane remains an outsider to her Austrian life. However, on returning to Iran she finds those friends who she has looked forward to meeting again are now also strangers to her and look down on her “Westernised” ways.

The considered narrative is emotive whilst also restrained,uncovering a side of Iran that remains hidden too those who only experience it through the news. It recalls those who were locked in prison or died at the hands of both the Shah and the theocracy, the continued attempts at rebellion that must become more secretive as protests become too dangerous and parties involving alcohol appear too risky. Instead, in one instance, like minded individuals meet and hold private life drawing classes in response to the regime preventing women attending. They refuse to allow their lives to be narrowed due to close-minded leadership.

If there is any one that sneers at graphic novels they only need to be handed a copy of Persepolis to be proved completely and utterly misguided. This book will remain relevant and fresh for many years and is an excellent entry point for those who wish to understand aspects of Iranian culture, both old and new, better.