Reading history and reviews
Finished on 22nd January 2011Jonathan Kemp's novel consists of three loosely connected first-person narratives spaced approximately 50 years apart from each other, and telling the story of gay life in London over the last century: in 1854 Jack Rose is a rent boy who becomes involved with Oscar Wilde (and witnesses Wilde's downfall); in 1954 Colin Read is a middle-aged aspiring artist who struggles with social stigma, illegality and his own repressed sexuality as he begins a tentative relationship with a male model; and in 1998 David is another rent boy living a life of excess which ultimately ends in prison.
The stories are told episodically and are interleaved with each other but otherwise are only tenuously connected, so the reader is left to consider the parallels and differences between the worlds that each character inhabits and the lives that they live - for example, there are echoes of the hedonism of Jack's 1890s in the excesses of David's late 1990s; at the same time the outcome of Wilde's trial and conviction sets the tone for the repression of Colin's 1950s.
I found the book quite a compelling read, although for me the 1950s sections were the most plausible - the outrageous parties and sexual acts of the other two strands often seemed almost cartoonishly over the top (although maybe I'm just a bit naive). The descriptions of the characters' sexual encounters are frequently also quite explicit, which might not be to everyone's taste. However, a short essay by the author at the end of this edition sheds more light on the structure of the book and added to my understanding and enjoyment. Overall a very readable, interesting and at times thought-provoking book.