Patterns are interesting to observe in literature. So when Alan Hollinghurst’s latest novel ‘The Sparsholt Affair’ was set to be released in the same month – this month – as John Banville’s ‘Mrs Osmond’, I knew I had to read both books.
Because both authors have won the Booker Prize – Hollinghurst for his amazing ‘The Line of Beauty’ in 2004 and John Banville for his beautiful ‘The Sea’ and because I was instantly curious about the Jamesian similarities: Hollinghurst’s ‘The Line of Beauty’ was exquisitely Jamesian in style. ‘Mrs Osmond’ is a reimagining of the ending of Henry James’s ‘The Portrait of a Lady’.
‘The Sparsholt Affair’ begins in Oxford during the war, narrated by Freddie Green, the only character not to be utterly enraptured by David Sparsholt, a young student looking forward to joining the RAF. Indeed, so strong is the mysterious Sparsholt’s appeal that he has everyone falling at his feet, fellow male and female students, his girlfriend and brief acquaintances.
The novel shifts narrative perspective and jumps forward in time, to the third person, telling the story of teenage Johnny Sparsholt – David’s son some years later in the 1960s. They are on a family holiday with his French exchange friend Bastien who sometimes shares Johnny’s affections for him although at other times, resists.
The reader learns about the real ‘Sparsholt Affair’ through snippets said to Johnny some years later. Johnny is now a little older, working in an art dealer’s in London. We are told that ‘The Sparsolt Affair’ involved a scandal involving Sparsholt with an MP at house parties in Cornwall. Although we are still not sure what to make of Sparsholt: What happened to give the book its title? And why? Indeed, Johnny seems just as confused by it as we are.
The novel shows the passing of time. Towards the end we meet Freddie Green again, now much older and a successful writer. It is an unsettling change as shocking as the speed at which time passes.
It is truly a fantastic read.
‘Mrs Osmond’ is wonderful too. Picking up where Henry James left off in ‘A Portrait of a Lady’ Banville explores what it means to be a free woman.
Can you ever be free from memories?
It is unafraid to be funny and sentimental. Characters behave in unexpected ways, surprising themselves and the reader respectively.
Mrs Osmond travels to London, then Paris, Geneva and Italy with her maid, Staines, a character of comedy and severity.
I loved the intricacies of each sentence – they make you feel as well travelled as Mrs Osmond – in the best possible way.
I am always a little weary of ‘reimagined’ novels but this is a beautiful book in its own right. Sensitive, stunning.
I savoured every word as it sang from its page. It makes you sit up and really read, and enjoy reading. Absolutely fascinating.
You must read ‘Mrs Osmond’ this autumn.
Two completely different but excellent books this month! Thank goodness I don’t have to pick a favourite.
‘The Sparsholt Affair’ by Alan Hollinghurst was published by Picador on 5th October 2017. Hardback £20.
‘Mrs Osmond’ by John Banville was published by Penguin – Viking on 5th October 2017. Hardback £14.99.
My copy was kindly sent to me (on my request) by the publisher to review.