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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 October, 2004, 08:56 GMT 09:56 UK
Review: The Line of Beauty
By Tom Bishop
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Alan Hollinghurst
Hollinghurst's tale is set in the Thatcher era of the mid-1980s
Alan Hollinghurst's fourth novel is his second Booker Prize nomination, having previously caught the judges' eyes with The Folding Star in 1994.

BBC News Online is reviewing one of the short listed books each day leading up to the Booker announcement on Tuesday, 19 October.

The Line of Beauty follows appropriately-named graduate Nick Guest as he eschews his Northamptonshire home to live with the wealthy parents of college friend Toby Fedden in London.

Toby's father Gerald is a rapidly rising Conservative MP whose ambition moulds his social and family life as they anticipate Margaret Thatcher's 1987 re-election.

As the Feddens enjoy the full benefit of Britain's political climate, Guest is swept along by the power and promise of the decade.

Comic moments

The novel is most enjoyable as a study of Gerald Fedden, seen by a perceptive Guest as an overgrown schoolboy whose "famous hospitality disguised an odd lack of particular, personal skills".

Its humour lies in Fedden's transparent bids to win Thatcher's favour, with The Lady herself making a brief but comical appearance.

Guest is the only character whose thoughts are exposed by Hollinghurst, who introduces his main character as a sweet but na´ve "aesthete" on the verge of his first romance.

It is hard not to feel cheated when the story lurches forward four years and redefines Guest as the passive lover of Wani Ouradi - a closeted young millionaire whose sole attractive feature is his beauty.

Lost empathy

The pair embark upon one loveless sexual encounter after another, fuelled by pile after pile of cocaine, leading to some suitably sordid passages.

While their lifestyle illustrates the soul-destroying nature of greed, it becomes hard to maintain any empathy for Guest, who remains largely oblivious to his own wretchedness.

An amusing army of two-dimensional supporting characters reaffirm the fact that people in power can be cold and ruthless, yet fail to challenge the Tory stereotype.

Nevertheless Hollinghurst is expert at tracking the thrusts and parries of dinner party conversation, and details the trappings of upper class life in a way that rings true.

Little intimacy

Yet the story sags in the middle, as it meanders from one social occasion to another before cramming as many revelations as possible into its closing chapters.

Longed-for passion and confrontation is kept to a minimum as characters meet this belated bid for drama with a wall of British stoicism.

The Line of Beauty succeeds in evoking the feeling of an extended stay with people you barely know.

But like a pleasant weekend that fell flat, it delivered little of the intimacy or insight required to make it truly memorable.

The Line of Beauty is published by Picador

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