MiniReview: "London Triptych" by Jonathan Kemp

The trials of Oscar Wilde feature in the 1890s part of the triptych, with Alfred Taylor (inset) and Wilde playing major roles. 

What is it?

A novel by English writer Jonathan Kemp, first published in 2010.


Details, please.

The title kind of says it all: it’s set in London, the city playing a major role, and it’s a triptych: three stories, set in different time periods (1890s, 1950s, 1990s), focusing on gay men, and particularly on rent boys.



Yeah, we haven’t read a lot of books with that particular slant on gay men’s lives.


So there’s oodles of sex?

Masses of it. And a lot of drugs—heroine, cocaine, ecstasy. And absinthe.


Okay, so that could be fun to read about, but can it sustain a novel?

In Jonathan Kemp’s capable hands, it can. Although the book features a lot of sex, at all times and in all places, there is also a great deal of plot here. The 1890s storyline features a very young man, Jack, from a poor, violent background who finds a home in a gay brothel. During the course of his work, he meets and becomes very close to Oscar Wilde. (Bosie makes an appearance as well!) In the 1950s section, the main character, Colin, is a closeted gay man who has never really lived his sexuality physically but uses art as his vehicle to explore the bodies of beautiful men, one of whom he falls in love with. And the 1990s section involves a young man, David, who comes to London in the 1980s and becomes a successful rent boy with lots of sex in his life but little love.


Wow, that is lots of plot. Does it cohere?

Kemp creates connections between the storylines, with 1890s Jack reappearing in the 1950s story, and 1950s Gore (the love object) showing up as David’s mature lover in the 1990s. And there are recurring themes: the search for freedom and transcendence (through, above all, sex, but also perhaps love, drugs, and art); and London, the novel’s enveloping body.


It all sounds highly readable.

I really, really liked it. The book manages to be simultaneously highly erotic and deeply thoughtful. It raises questions about the connection between physical love and emotional connection, the limits of sexual ecstasy (Jack, Gore and David all love sex, in a straightforward way that is joyful to read about it, but in each case they hit a wall of sorts), the fragile and illusory nature of love, and the role of art as an alternative mode of expression for a gay man. It’s interesting that Colin seems ultimately to turn his back on emotional involvement in favour of artistic expression, and has great success with it. But is that a sterile existence? To be discussed.



Two. This book is a great, sexy and sensual read, a window into the peculiarities of different historical periods of gay men’s lives, and an invitation to think about the pluses and the minuses of the “hedonism” of some gay lives. 

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