In Praise of the New 

Louise Pfanner shares her latest discoveries.

July 2018

 - Tuesday, July 03, 2018
In Oxford in the early days of WW2, a young man, David Sparsholt, arrives at university and sets the cat amongst the pigeon with his extreme good looks. Other romantic young men fall in love with him, but he is affianced to a girl from home. Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair  is not the Oxford of Evelyn Waugh, with funny, fatuous young scholars and stupid young men, it’s more the Oxford of Anthony Powell—still amusing but with a serious interest in the world of art and literature...albeit with a dose of romance. In fact, Art runs through the novel like a bright thread, pulling all the characters together, and providing some of the most vivid passages of description and settings. In the next part of the novel (it is written in five parts) David Sparsholt is married and has a young son Jonathan. Perhaps not as sharp as his father, but far more endearing, the focus of the novel shifts onto Jonathan, and we follow him as he establishes himself as an artist. Somewhere in between the novel’s episodes, his father has fallen into public disgrace (the eponymous affair), and its echoes keep reverberating throughout the book—getting less significant as time rolls on. Jonathan is not an Everyman, but his life’s path is so representative of many that it rings true. Not wanting to give anything away, but it is worth reading the whole book just to get the part when Jonathan, now a portrait painter, paints the portrait of a fairly recognisable and excruciating celebrity family. There are other memorable moments—Meissen cups play a small but hilarious part in the narrative, and wonderful scenes at an auction, a wake, and a dance party are so vivid that it’s more like watching a film than reading a book. Hollinghurst’s language is so elegant and concise—a perfect match for this long spanning narrative.

Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a different kind of novel altogether. We first meet the singular Eleanor as she goes about her working day in an office in Glasgow. It’s clear she’s not an easy person, in fact her interior dialogue reveals her to be tetchy, critical, and very peculiar. She is in the world, but not part of it, and of course there is a reason for that. Bit by bit, we learn that something terrible happened in her childhood, and she was placed in foster care, proceeding from that into a council flat—with the very occasional visit from a case worker. Apart from those visits, no one really knows about her, or cares. Despite the underlying horrors Eleanor is a very amusing character—her insights are sharp and her intentions completely benign, and they make this book very compelling. What I really liked is that it’s a very good reminder not to make assumptions about others, we never really know what’s gone on in anyone’s past. There is also a really surprising twist, which made me want to go back to the beginning. This is a really accomplished and uplifting debut by Honeyman. Louise