Blake Morrison in the Guardian wrote a very interesting article on the Country House Novel in which he referred to this novel comparing it to Howard’s End and Brideshead Revisited so I was very keen to read this. Hollinghurst seems to be widely praised but I had trouble with both this and the Booker winner The Line of Beauty.
It starts off well detailing the story of the poet Cecil Vallance, a Rupert Brooke style character who is visiting the Sawle family at their home at Two Acres in 1913. Whilst impressing the teenage Daphne with his poetry he is having an illicit affair with Daphne’s brother George. Then the second part of the book sweeps forward to 1926 where at first we are confused about who the new characters described are. Eventually it becomes clear that Daphne is now married to Cecil’s brother Dudley. The story continues through the eyes of several different generally unlikable characters up to the year 2008 with the different characters’ quest to find out the truth about Cecil’s life.
The essential problem with this book is that it is just two long, the device of starting each new part of the book with a seemingly completely new scenario becomes annoying and monotonous. I was listening to the audio version read by James Daniel Wilson whilst training for my half marathon and it was long enough to more than see me through that. The narrator also had a particularly annoying for voice for Paul Bryant who is supposed to be from Dorset but sounds more like a Bristolian whereas all the other characters seemed to sound the same. The end of the novel is also so abrupt that I had to check my ipod hadn’t broken or run out of battery and I was left with a sense of ‘was that it’?
The plot seems to turn around the theme of myth and memories and the idea about how biography is often based on failures to remember the facts or the intention to actively deceive. The idea that it is impossible to find out exactly what a person was like is very interesting but the fact that the biographer can never fully discover the truth is ultimately really frustrating for the reader as we never really find out the truth about Cecil which made my 20 hours of listening seem a bit futile.