MiniReview: "The Folding Star" by Alan Hollinghurst

To be strictly faithful to the novel, I would have chosen a less colourful cover, but it probably wouldn't sell as well as this one. 

What is it?

A novel by English writer Alan Hollinghurst, first published in 1994.


Ooh, we’ve already reviewed a couple of books by him. What’s this one about?

Young Englishman Edward Manners, in his early thirties, goes to a small Flemish city to teach English to two well-off teenagers, Luc and Marcel. While leading an active sex life, meeting guys in the bars and parks and swimming baths of the city, he also becomes involved in the lives of his students. He eventually begins working for Marcel’s father, who is the world’s leading authority on Edvard Orst, a (fictional) Flemish artist of the late 19th/early 20th century whose life and work was marked by romantic obsession. In his turn, Edward becomes romantically obsessed with beautiful 17-year-old Luc and his bohemian friends, whose love lives are not at all clear to him.


That’s a fair bit of plot.

There is more, including a central section where Edward goes back to England for the funeral of a friend who’s died in a car crash (before he could die of AIDS), and where he confronts his past.


Hollinghurst does create rich canvases, huh?

Indeed he does. But everything coheres. He’s a brilliant novelist.


Was this as good as his other novels you’ve read?

I’ve read four of them so far, and they’re all wonderful. This one is, in certain respects, the most unflinchingly honest about gay men’s lives, and particularly the seedier sides. (Edward’s friend Matt makes a living sending dirty underwear of sexy boys to lovesick men, among other things. And Edward ends up stealing some of Luc's undies for himself.)


Hollinghurst's books pretty well all centre gay lives, though, don’t they?

Yes. What distinguishes this one is the overall mood of the novel, which is crepuscular (the “folding star” of the title is the star that comes out at dusk and tells the shepherd it’s time to get the sheep back to their fold). Like the paintings of Edvard Orst (whose eyesight was seriously deteriorating), described in detail in the book, everything in this novel is bathed in an aura of obscurity or ambiguity—nothing is really clear (notably Edward’s ideas of what is going on versus what is really going on). There are many shades of greyness in the novel, right to the very end, where not a lot is really resolved. Is this the nature of queer lives, I ask myself after reading this book, that we are always living somehow in uncertainty, marginality, sometimes unhealthy obsession?


Gosh. This novel made you think that?

Hey, that’s a purely subjective impression. But I do feel that this novel is marked, from the first sentence to the last, by a queer sensibility of unusual (almost unique) intelligence and perceptiveness. It’s erotic, sensual, heartbreaking, funny, but it is never not gay in its view of the world.





What?! You almost never give a three!

For me, this is what a three looks like. An absolutely sublime novel. One of the best novels I’ve ever read, and probably the best gay novel I’ve ever read. I just want to read it again now (but I still have a couple of Hollinghurst novels I haven't read). Gorgeous. And, just in case I’ve given the impression that the novel is uniquely literary and intellectual, it is, in fact, as sexy as any literary novel I’ve ever read. A pleasure for the senses as well as the mind. 

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