The Sparsholt Affair opens in the manner of thousands of other books. It’s the early 1940s, the war is raging and we, the readers, are midst an Oxford college getting introduced to a handful of characters. We encounter the title character David Sparsholt immediately as a mere ‘shadow’ seen through the window and the first part of the book, which is divided into five altogether, is mainly focused on the small circle of male protagonists and their fascination with the figure of David Sparsholt. But if you think that the book’s focus is David you are wrong for his name is a symbol of a much bigger topic, a movement and its history that has slowly but steadily changed for the better: the gay movement.
The novel’s five parts are connected as they follow the same group of men throughout the years but David is not the main character. He is the object of lust and admiration in part one where the majority of people from the circle, from Peter to Evert, want to have him but we don’t gain a profound insight of him apart from the fact that he is either bisexual or a closeted homosexual. This notion is further highlighted in the second chapter where we encounter David, now married with children, having an affair whilst on a summer holiday with his family; an affair that turns into a massive scandal in the next three chapters of the book. It is also in chapter two that we encounter Johnny, David’s son, who is the main focus of the book. From chapter two to five we learn more and more about Johnny, his own sexuality and experience from a very early age up to him being an old man in the 2010s. It is through Johnny that the reader gets to learn more about the characters introduced in the beginning of the book, as well.
The Sparsholt Affair opens with a small number of characters and from chapter to chapter adds more and more people, which is in a way its downfall. In the beginning of the book the reader gets to know and care about the young men on the pages. However, each chapter adds more and more characters and the old ones get somewhat left behind. We do learn the fates of Evert and Freddie but not as fully as we would have liked to and the mishmash of people that constantly gets introduced makes the narrative somewhat hard to follow and we don’t get so invested in the people on the page. Apart from Johnny whose life we get to explore in a bit more detail, the fact that there is such a variety of other protagonists and the fact that the book spans over almost a century makes for a somewhat detached read.
The novel manages to cover almost a century of lives and three Spasholt generations with Johnny’s daughter introduced in the last few hundred pages. Although it is difficult to get invested in their lives, the novel is gripping in its discussion of the gay movement throughout the ages and it is a page turner in its own way. From David’s scandal to Johnny’s gay club experience in the 21st century the reader becomes a witness to the shifting attitude towards homosexuality. No one would bat an eye at David Sparsholt having an affair with a man in 2010 but back in his time his behaviour more or less ruins his life and his family.
All of these experiences, encounters and lives are written in a style that is indeed worthy of the Man Booker Prize that Alan Hollinghurst won in 2004. The language is stunning and the sentences are vivid in their descriptions and insight. Albeit the story is lacking in terms of character building and devel.
The Sparsholt Affair is available now, published by Picador.