The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst —bored by decadence

Cover of The Line Of Beauty, the 2004 Booker winning novel by Alun Hollinghurst.

What a disappointment The Line of Beauty turned out to be.

This winner of the 2004 Booker Prize was so dull at times that I was tempted to abandon and go in search of more interesting reading material — a railway timetable, the instruction booklet for my cooker or th ingredients panel of a cereal packet. All were far more enticing than Alun Hollinghurst’s text.

The Line of Beauty is meant to be a novel reflecting on the nature of Britain in the 1980s. This was the era of Margaret Thatcher, economic euphoria and ultra confidence among the privileged governing classes. But it was also the decade that saw  the emergence of the Aids/HIV crisis.

We do get some of the sense of the period but it’s merely as background to the story of the sexual awakening of a young homosexual, his encounters with the great and the good and his relationships with a series of men. There’s a lot of sex, drugs and more sex.

Nick Guest is an Oxford graduate from a middle class background. During his time at university he got to mingle with people from wealth, power and titles. Through one of his friends, Toby Fedden, the son of  a rising star in the Tory party, he’s invited to take up residence in the Fedden’s upmarket house while he undertakes his postgraduate research on Henry James. His presence in the house gives Nick a chance to mingle with aristocrats and politicians, to party in castles, holiday in French chateaux and even to dance with the Prime Minister.

Transfixed By Beauty

Nick is a charmer, an aesthete who is entranced by beauty in all its forms. A piece of furniture, a Gauguin painting; the shape of a man’s buttocks and especially the double “S” shape of the ogee, the  double curve cited by Hogarth as the “line of beauty”. Where the Feddens see art as a commodity, Nick appreciates beauty for its own sake.

Over the course of the novel, we see the changing nature of his relationship with the Feddens. But more fundamentally we also witness the development of Nick’s sexuality. The Feddens accept his sexuality if only to the extent of never mentioning it but when it threatens their privileged lives and Gerald’s prospects of high office, they turn on him. The tolerated lodger becomes persona non grata.

Hypocrisy is just one of the themes explored in The Line of Beauty.  The book also considers the relationship between politics and homosexuality, the bubble world of the the Conservatives in the 1980s (summed up by one civil servant “The economy’s in ruins, no one’s got a job, and we just don’t care, it’s bliss.”) and, of course, the nature of beauty.

Slow Progress

Overall I found The Line of Beauty to be a remarkably dull book. Reading it was a chore and if it hadn’t been part of my Booker Prize project I wouldn’t have bothered.

The narrative spans four years, divided into three sections.

Section one “The Love Chord” , takes place in 1983 shortly after Margaret Thatcher has won her second general election victory. Nick is in the first few months of his stay at the Feddens’ Knightsbridge home. It’s a painfully slow narrative in which Nick takes a lover for the first time, meeting him in secret in public parks and quiet streets.

Section two “To Whom Do You Beautifully Belong?” is an improvement. The time has shifted forward to 1986 when Nick is in a relationship with Wani Ouradi, the wealthy son of a Lebanese businessman, with whom he enters the world of drugs and promiscuity.

The final section “The End of the Street” takes place just one year later when Wani has been diagnosed as HIV positive and is deteriorating rapidly. Across the city the world of Nick’s former benefactors, the Feddens, is about to disintegrate amid a political and financial catastrophe. The Feddens use Nick as a scapegoat.

The drama doesn’t materialise in any meaningful way until more than halfway through that second part. Until then we’re subjected to a series of eventful country-house parties and family gatherings where Nick is still very much the outsider. His surname — Guest — is a clue to his real status. They’re considerably more sedate than his other social interactions which involve sex and drugs.

Too Much Of A Good Thing

The problem here is that the interest in a decadent lifestyle declined for me as rapidly as my appetite for a second ice-cream.

Sex is seldom far from Nick’s mind.  He only has to see a man in a street and he immediately imagines him as a sexual partner.  But how many times do we need to know this? How many times do we need to read a passage describing furtive coke-snorting and sexual encounters?  The repetitive nature of this book made it hard to enjoy.

One critic in The Independent thought The Line of Beauty was “fabulous” and Hollinghurt’s recreation of a “bigoted, nepotistic, racist, callous and mean-spirited epoch” was “brilliant”.  Not for the first time I find myself considerably at odds with critics and with the judges of the Booker Prize.

The Line Of Beauty by Alun Hollinghurst: Footnotes

The book won the Booker Prize in 2004 against competition from Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and The Master by Colm Toibin.  The Line of Beauty was dubbed by the media as ‘the first gay novel’ to win the prize. Describing his novel, Alan Hollinghurst said, ‘The first part is a romance, the second one is more farcical and grotesque and the third one is more tragic in nature. In 2019, the novel was ranked 38th on The Guardian’s list of the 100 best books of the 21st century.

This review was published at Bookertalk.com in 2018. This is an updated version with formatting changes to improve readability and upgrade to the WordPress block editor platform. It is re-published in support of #throwbackthursday hosted by Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

57 thoughts on “The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst —bored by decadence

  • September 10, 2021 at 12:00 pm
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    I very much enjoyed the review, as I find strong reactions (positive or negative) to any artistic work very interesting. I also appreciate your frankness, as almost all of the reviews I’ve read of this novel from the professional critics have been laudatory. And there’s the fact that Line won the Booker over Toíbín’s The Master and Mitchel’s Cloud Atlas, two of my very favorite novels (I was quite disappointed by the judges that year, I must admit).
    I’ve had a long (if not very deep) and ambivalent relationship with Hollinghurst’s work. The Stranger’s Child was the first of his novels that I read, probably because it was on some prize list or other. To my surprise, I liked it quite a bit; ditto for The Sparsholt Affair, which I read fairly soon afterwards (although I did think it was a lesser work). At that point, I decided to read through Hollinghurst’s novels roughly in order, so it was off to his debut with the intriguing title, The Swimming Pool Library. This one was a bit of a stretch for me. I did get tired of all those heaving sex scenes, but as a picture of gay life at a certain point in time (i.e., pre-AIDS) it struck me as honest and rather compelling. The relationship between the novel’s two main characters, the young gay would-be biographer & the much older gay subject, who lived his life in very closeted times, was also well done and — bonus– there was a nice twist at the end. Although I didn’t really llike the novel, it was an impressive debut but — I needed a break! Although I was curious about The Line of Beauty, which I still hadn’t read, I just couldn’t face another novel about rich, oblivious people with privileged lifestyles and primitive social views. Somehow my break stretched into years. And years. Finally, when I did a massive book purge last year during a move I do believe I discarded my little cache of Hollinghurst novels, several unread (including Line) without too much regret.
    I think I found your review so interesting because I’ve been puzzled for years about my own reactions to Hollinghust’s work.
    I do admire his talent; he’s witty; a good stylist and is able to create believable & memorable characters. At times, however, I’m put off by a certain overly precious quality to his prose and his detachment. Emotionally, well, Hollinghurst isn’t on my wave length. Especially with The Swimming Pool Library (much less so with the other two books) I also became a little weary of the seemingly endless & graphic sex scenes (I prefer more subtlety) my reaction is perhaps a bit unfair, as picturing the excesses of the time was part of the novel’s aim.
    Although my reactions to Hollinghurst’s work are obviously quite ambivalent, on balance I’d say they’re more positive than yours. On the other hand, you’ve read The Line of Beauty, his best known and most highly regarded work, and I haven’t!.

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    • September 11, 2021 at 6:19 pm
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      It’s good to get a different perspective on an author I’ve sampled but not read extensively. The sex scenes in Line of Beauty were mercifully not detailed (wish other authors would exercise similar restraint) so that wasn’t the issue. As you say, this did reflect the nature of the era when Aids was not well understood to be such a threat. My real problem was that I didn’t care at all for the main character. I don’t have to “like” them; I’m quite happy reading books where I take a strong dislike to the main character but where I struggle is when they don’t create any emotional reaction in me.

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  • September 10, 2021 at 10:18 am
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    Yes, just because a book gets a prize doesn’t mean you’re going to love it (but it is nice when a book you love gets a prize)! We aren’t the judges so we’ll never know why they picked this book.

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    • September 11, 2021 at 6:20 pm
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      Sometimes I read a book that has won a prize and enjoy it (like Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet) but other times I scratch my head over what the judges saw that I didn’t (as with Sally Rooney)

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      • September 12, 2021 at 5:59 am
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        Oh, I ADORED Hamnet, but I read it before it won, and I’ve always enjoyed her books. Read all of them, including her memoir. As for Sally Rooney – she writes YA and that’s not my thing, so there’s no draw there. I did try to watch the TV series they made of her book and it turned me off. Maybe I’m too old.

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  • September 10, 2021 at 9:28 am
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    I rarely agree with critics, so this doesn’t surprise me.

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    • September 11, 2021 at 3:52 pm
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      Sometimes I’m in agreement but I find I trust book bloggers reactions more than I do those from the paid critics

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  • September 9, 2021 at 7:31 pm
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    Ugh! Thanks for your honest review!

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    • September 9, 2021 at 10:12 pm
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      Not one of the highlights of my Booker project for sure

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  • September 9, 2021 at 4:35 pm
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    I read this years ago, and enjoyed it. Though until reading your review had remembered little of it. I can’t remember what I liked about it.

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    • September 9, 2021 at 10:13 pm
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      Dig deep into that memory Ali – I’m desperate to hear of any redeeming features with this book !

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  • September 9, 2021 at 4:19 pm
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    I remember vaguely enjoying this one but I read it years ago so that may not be the case!

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    • September 9, 2021 at 10:14 pm
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      So you might actually have read something completely different 🙂

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      • September 9, 2021 at 10:48 pm
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        I think I liked The Swimming Pool Library, but don’t really remember

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        • September 11, 2021 at 6:21 pm
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          I could say the same about many books – I remember enjoying them but ask me what they were about or why I enjoyed them and I’d be at a loss. It’s more a general feeling.

  • September 9, 2021 at 2:55 pm
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    He’s a wee bit of an acquired taste Ithink. Intellectual, middle class upper, this one was not my favourite. I did however enjoy The Stranger’s Child and The Folding Star

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    • September 9, 2021 at 10:15 pm
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      Well my experience with Line of Beauty more or less put me off him entirely. The Stranger’s Child does seem a bit more penetrable

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  • October 15, 2018 at 4:12 pm
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    I warned you! Haahaa, to be fair though Hollinghurst does write some better novels, but even as a gay man reading them they are WAY too navel gazing even for me. He drives me insane with too many details and thoughts. It’s like he wants to write his version of Isherwood’s A Single Man, but doesn’t have the mastery or conciseness.

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    • October 19, 2018 at 6:38 pm
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      You did indeed Geoff but I had to give it a go since its on the Booker list. But it was almost a did not finish. Navel gazing it certainly was guilty of. Even if he has written better books I don’t feel enthused enough to try them

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    • October 14, 2018 at 9:58 am
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      The book did improve about half way through but was it worth the time I invested in it – not really

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  • October 5, 2018 at 4:55 pm
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    I tried it back in 2005 and gave up halfway through!

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    • October 6, 2018 at 5:11 pm
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      So glad to know I was not alone in disliking this book ….

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  • September 27, 2018 at 12:32 am
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    How does one feel okay about putting the words racist/bigot next to the words fabulous/brilliant? I can imagine the book is terribly slow if the character loves beauty; you typically get all those dragging descriptions, feelings, and reactions to the beautiful thing.

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    • September 28, 2018 at 3:52 pm
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      fortunately the descriptions didn’t go on any any great length. they were just too frequent

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  • September 26, 2018 at 11:10 pm
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    I think I quite liked this one but found it hard going at the same time. I certainly wasn’t overwhelmed with love for it. Saying that it was years ago and can’t remember much about it. Probably a bit of a slow read. I much preferred the only other Hollinghurst I have read The Stranger’s Child

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    • September 28, 2018 at 3:53 pm
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      I had been thinking of reading The Stranger’s Child but now am less inclined to do so.

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  • September 26, 2018 at 9:44 pm
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    I read your blog to know I am not alone!

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    • September 28, 2018 at 3:53 pm
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      Clever use of a well known phrase that I would love to know the origin of but can’t find it

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  • September 26, 2018 at 1:28 pm
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    I’ve had this in my TBR stack for years and never felt particularly drawn to it… sounded good in theory (on the blurb) but your review confirms my suspicions.

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    • September 26, 2018 at 6:06 pm
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      I know some bloggers I follow really enjoyed it but for me life is way too short to spend time with a boring book. I know you have plenty of other options awaiting you so go for those instead

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  • September 26, 2018 at 7:40 am
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    I’ve got another book of his which was compared to Iris Murdoch (can I remember which one? No, I cannot) and I’ve been a bit worried, but I have worse on the TBR so we’ll see. I’ve never fancied this one somehow.

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    • September 26, 2018 at 6:07 pm
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      Hm, I know that my reaction is based on just one novel but I am really not sure how that comparison could have been made. I also saw some comments that compared parts of Line of Beauty to he Great Gatsby which I thought was a real stretch

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  • September 26, 2018 at 1:24 am
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    Oh good! I’ll never have to trouble my TBR with this one then! Good to know I’m not alone in finding constant descriptions of sex, drugs and even rock’n’roll get a bit wearing after a bit…

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  • September 26, 2018 at 12:39 am
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    Couldn’t agree with you more. I gave it a reluctant three stars at Goodreads but it’s a forgettable novel except for one thing… books about homosexual love were rare in those days so it was a brave move by the Booker judges.
    The trouble is, homosexual love is just as boring IMO to read about as heterosexual love. I don’t think we should be coy about it, but I am not interested in every heaving breath!

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    • September 26, 2018 at 6:11 pm
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      If it had been a bloke lusting after ever female he saw or vice versa, then it still would have been tedious. The homosexual aspect didn’t change anything in that respect for me. I hope the judges didn’t chose this book just because of what it had to say about homosexual love – I would rather they looked just at the literary merit….

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    • September 26, 2018 at 6:13 pm
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      I liked your phrase about the florid style of the narrative. It did feel rather indulgent at times, as if Hollinghurst couldn’t bear to murder his darlings

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  • September 25, 2018 at 9:56 pm
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    I felt just like you. He was a main attraction at the Copenhagen BookFair that year – or was it the year after? He was a good performer, and as I visited friends in London often during the Thatcher years, I thought “this is worth reading”, so I bought the English paperback and started reading. But I gave up. I just couldn’t find any interest in these people.

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    • September 26, 2018 at 6:17 pm
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      It was indeed hard to find anything to engage me in those characters initially – the Feddens seemed horribly pretentious. By the close I did feel some sympathy for Nick though.

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  • September 25, 2018 at 8:52 pm
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    This stood unread on my bookshelves for years (decades?) and when I moved it was one of those which didn’t make the cut. I don’t feel so bad about that now!

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  • September 25, 2018 at 8:43 pm
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    Well, I can’t say I’ve ever been drawn to this, and I’m even less inclined now I’ve read your review. My tolerance for reading about 80s Tory excess was never going to be that great anyway! 😀

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  • September 25, 2018 at 8:07 pm
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    You obviously struggled with this one – well done for finishing. I was underwhelmed as well – didn’t make me want to read anything else by Hollinghurst.

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    • September 26, 2018 at 6:18 pm
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      It’s definitely put me off reading his work – I see he has a new one out in paperback. I shall not be buying!

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  • September 25, 2018 at 7:48 pm
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    Your first paragraph made me laugh out loud, Karen! We’re in agreement on this one.

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    • September 26, 2018 at 6:20 pm
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      Oh that’s good to know. When I fail to engage with some of these award winning books, I begin to wonder “is it just me?” so glad to know it’s not…..

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  • September 25, 2018 at 7:17 pm
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    I read this a good few years ago and to be honest, I can’t remember a thing about it. Even reading your review didn’t bring anything back. That can’t be good!

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    • September 26, 2018 at 6:21 pm
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      It’s very telling when you have a complete blank. It happens to me with crime fiction but seldom with more literary works..

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      • September 9, 2021 at 2:39 pm
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        Yup I remember reading this because of all the hoopla around it – and wondering how on earth could it be so lauded. Like moving thru treacle

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        • September 9, 2021 at 10:16 pm
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          So relieved to hear it wasn’t just me that found this a struggle. I kept wondering what I was missing that had caught the judges attention so much

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