Alan Hollinghurst writes like a dream about the nightmare of unequal affection. In his third novel, The Spell, four men dance around one another, their emotions and actions ranging from casual cruelty to anxiety to adoration. Hollinghurst's painful but smiling roundelay alternates between Dorset--where 40ish architect Robin shares a house with the impossibly self-involved Justin--and London. When Justin's ex, Alex, arrives for a weekend in the country, the atmosphere is instantly rich with jealousy and power plays. And after the trio is joined by a younger gay man, Danny--who turns out to be Robin's son--the attractions and duplicities multiply exponentially. Alex, for instance, soon admits to Danny, "I've got a ruinous taste for takers," and they (and we) are off and running.
As ever, Hollinghurst's prose is musical and sensual but also deeply witty. Even the birds in this novel modulate their song from somnolent calls to outright chuckles--echoing the pleasures and absurdities of the humans they circle. And the author's feel for the easy intimacies and brutalities that his characters exchange is unmatched. As Justin (clad only in a tanga) escorts Alex around the cottage, he points out some vases: "These pots, darling, were made by potters of the greatest probity." Hollinghurst's descriptions are marvelous, whether of landscape or human frailty. After leaving a rather unrelaxed restaurant with Alex, "Danny recovered his air of bossiness and mystery, like a prefect in the school of pleasure." And when the two obtain some Ecstasy and hit one of Danny's haunts--a brilliantly realized club--the author reveals the rapture and idiocy in each moment:
The boys glistened and pawed at the ground. They looked like members of some dodgy brainwashing cult.... Alex saw that what he most wanted was happening and groped marvellingly between the different kinds of happiness, the chemicals and the sex. It seemed that happening and happiness were the same, he must remember that, to tell everyone. But as amusing as Alan Hollinghurst is, his forte is loss. Again and again he reminds us that solitary sadness is a wink away from comedy and sexual possession. --Kerry Fried