Alan Hollinghurst’s sixth novel is a masterful chronicle of gay experience, family life and the passage of time, said John Mullan in The Times. Narrated in five sections “divided by intervals of many years”, it centres on David Sparsholt, a wealthy industrialist whom we first encounter as an engineering student at Oxford, during the Second World War. The “heartily unintellectual” Sparsholt at first seems to be straight, but it gradually emerges that he’s a “stranger character than he appears”. Just how strange is made clear by the novel’s key event, the “Sparsholt Affair” of the title, a hazily sketched sex scandal “involving Sparsholt, a Tory MP and rent boys”. Later, the focus shifts to Sparsholt’s son Johnny, a “moderately successful” artist who, unlike his father, is able to lead an openly gay life. This is a moving, “absorbingly complex novel” whose deepest pleasures – as ever with Hollinghurst (pictured) – are its beautiful sentences.
The scandal that prompts its central character’s downfall isn’t the only hazy thing about The Sparsholt Affair, said Peter Kemp in The Sunday Times. The “larger puzzle” is why the story becomes so “ungripping”. Though Hollinghurst’s prose is as “richly textured” as ever, there are “too many oddly entangled minor characters”, and even the protagonists suffer from a “lack of interesting substance”. I disagree, said Alex Preston in The Observer. Like its predecessor The Stranger’s Child, this is a novel concerned with the “subterranean narratives of gay life”. It is also, though, an “unashamedly readable” work. Funny, warm-hearted and full of superlative writing, this may be Hollinghurst’s “most beautiful” book yet.