The Sparsholt Affair – Alan Hollinghurst


Published October 5th 2017 by Picador (first published September 26th 2017)
Author: Alan Hollinghurst
Format: Hardback
Edition: Foyles Exclusive Signed Edition
Genre: Fiction, Historical fiction, LGBT
Pages: 448
Star rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Opening Line:

“The evening when we first heard Sparsholt’s name seems the best place to start this little memoir.”

Book synopsis (from dust jacket):

In October 1940, the handsome young David Sparsholt arrives in Oxford. A keen athlete and oarsman, he at first seems unaware of the effect he has on others – particularly on the lonely and romantic Evert Dax, son of a celebrated novelist and destined to become a writer himself. While the Blitz rages in London, Oxford exists at a strange remove: an ephemeral, uncertain place, in which nightly blackouts conceal secret liaisons. Over the course of one momentous term, David and Evert forge an unlikely friendship that will colour their lives for decades to come…

My review

I ordered this book from the Foyles website as a Christmas present to myself (which my mum then offered to buy for me instead!). It’s an exclusive signed edition, and is in Foyles red, rather than blue. It’s beautiful, and I couldn’t wait to start reading it.

Alan Hollinghurst is one of my favourite writers. The first of his books that I read was The Line of Beauty and this was a cover buy more than anything, but also because I’d wanted to read more LGBT books and authors. I fell in love with Hollinghurst’s style, and quickly got my hands on The Stranger’s Child. That book had a huge influence on my own writing and plot development. At the time, I was at university studying English with Creative Writing, and I turned to Hollingurst’s style when forming part of what would become my dissertation. I have three of his earlier books still to read, but when I heard about The Sparsholt Affair, I had to have it.


When I began reading it, I felt like I’d returned home after a long period of being away. His writing style is as beautiful as I remember, and his way of telling the story is like no other writer I’ve ever come across. The narrative begins as a memoir written by Freddie Green. In this we meet the main characters from the Oxford era: Evert Dax, David Sparsholt, Peter Coyle, Jill, Victor Dax…

The memoir is under the chapter title of ‘A New Man’ which of course refers to Sparsholt. He arrives at Oxford, and the young men in Freddie’s circle of friends, particularly Evert, become pre-occupied with him. It becomes clear that at least two of the men interested in him (Evert and Peter) are gay and therefore find him sexually attractive. Freddie witnesses his as a (we assume) straight outsider, who has no interest in Sparsholt other than the interest his friends seem to have. His memoir tracks Evert’s pursuit of David, however unsuccessful to begin with, and it plants the seeds for an event that affects the entire novel.


Once I’d begun reading, my best friend messaged me to say she was reading it too. She’d picked it up for her holiday read, but was struggling to get into it. I was thrilled that I had a friend who was reading Hollinghurst, someone I’d be able to discuss the book with and share thoughts about it with. As a response to her message about not being able to get into it, I replied with my history of reading him, and my love of his style (see screenshot complete with spelling mistake). But it’s true, I do slip into his writing like an old jumper, and this book could have had any plot, and chances are I’d still enjoy it. These thoughts were quite early on, and of course in some ways I was right, but it’s not so much about the male/male relationships, it’s about the effect they had at the time. The book is set at a time where being homosexual was still a crime, and in terms of Oxford University, any kind of active coupling was punished. So Evert’s obsession with David was wrought with a sense of danger and risk. Hollinghurst’s choice to have this section of the book from Freddie’s perspective, written as a memoir was spot on. It opens the book up to a wider perspective once we reach the next section of the book, which in true Hollinghurst style, is written years after the events of the previous section, a feature that continues for the rest of the novel.

With each section of the book we have to navigate the time, place, and main characters. They all relate back to the same story and set of characters, but it soon becomes clear that whatever occurred at Oxford with Sparsholt became quite a scandal, referred to as ‘The Sparsholt Affair’ a phrase first coined by Freddie in his memoir. We meet the characters later in life: David is married with a son called Johnny, who now becomes our main character. This section reads in the style and feel of a book like the opening of A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White. A young boy figuring out his sexuality, and fancying a young boy who displays an interest in woman. But for Johnny, it’s quite clear he is going to be gay.

“The day could be held off a little longer, in the stale refuge of the bed, while the parent, up as always at six, was already inexorably in motion; a hundred teenage mornings were huddled in the heap of the duvet.”

Johnny Sparsholt continues to be our main character, from childhood through to young man, and old man. The same characters re-appear, and new ones such as Ivan, Denis, Una, and Francesca. All their lives intertwine, and ‘the Sparsholt Affair’ is something that Johnny cannot avoid. His name, by association with this father, has become well-known, and evokes thoughts of what happened in the past.

It’s well-written, immersive, and tracks an entire set of lives. It does that wonderful thing of leaving me feeling like I’ve witnessed something from a different era, a different live. I’ve travelled with them, time has passed in a matter of moments, and I have the memory of reading Freddie’s memoir, just as the characters have their memory of the same events. The characters are well-rounded and believable. The story is written in true Hollinghurst style, but rests largely on the power of suggestion rather than revelation.

Link to the book on Goodreads: The Sparsholt Affair

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