Tuesday, February 28, 2012

REVIEW: The Swimming-Pool Library, by Alan Hollinghurst

The Swimming-Pool Library, by Alan Hollinghurst. Published 1989 by Vintage International.

William Beckwith is a 20-something, wealthy gay man who leads an idle, self-centered life in the London of the 1980s; he works out at an all-male gym, sleeps around and just generally enjoys himself. He's having a relationship of sorts with Arthur, a working class black man who shows up on Will's doorstep in trouble at the end of the first chapter. And he meets Lord Nantwich, an elderly version of himself, who would like Will to write his biography. Nantwich served in Africa in the heyday of British colonialism. Although he and William meet by chance, he knows something about Will's family and has chosen him for this project for a very special reason.

The reader follows Will's adventures through the clubs, movie houses and back alleys of London thanks to Hollinghurst's fluid, beautifully composed prose. There is a great deal of graphic sexual content; Hollinghurst's refrains of body parts and sexual actions reminded me of Oscar Hijuelos's books, where the erotic content forms a kind of musical background to the plot. Slowly some important things emerge though. William falls in love with Phil, a closeted man admired by other members of Will's club, but Wills narcissism is challenged when Phil turns out to be not the blank slate Will imagines him. As he gets to know Nantwich, facts emerge that cause Will to question his fitness for the task of writing about the man, and other facts come out that make Will view the man himself in a different light.

Starting out almost as a thriller, The Swimming-Pool Library turns into a kind of coming of age story, where everything changes and then nothing changes. Hollinghurst ends the story on a note of comical hope, if that makes sense; William's grown up a little but he's essentially the same. The book dragged for me now and then in places, and I missed the near complete absence of female characters (Will's world is very male-centric) but overall I was quite taken with Hollinghurst's smart, agile writing and the intriguing mysteries of the changeable, meandering plot. I would certainly recommend the book to literary readers and I look forward to reading the other two Hollinghurst novels in my collection.

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FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.


ImageNations said...

Interesting review. And I'm eager to know what Will found.

Zibilee said...

I have heard good things about Hollinghurst, but like you mention, I have also heard that his books can be pretty sexually graphic. That doesn't usually bother me though, so I might consider reading this one. The one thing that slightly puts me off is that the pacing is not tight the whole book through. This was a really compelling and interesting review. Thanks, Marie!

Sandy Nawrot said...

I read his book Line of Beauty, and boy was it graphic! I think that must be his trademark. It had draggy moments, but overall I was enthralled by Hollinghurst's gorgeous writing and his courage in his topics.

Kathleen said...

I think a male-centric book would be good for me to read. If I think about it I rarely read a book where the characters are all male.