I am really glad I went into this novel with no real knowledge of the plot. It made a few of the turns more interesting, and one quite devastating…even though it turned out I was wrong. There are no twists here, though, as happens in life. This novel is on the tail end (maybe) of a renewed interest in WWII, especially the RAF and the Blitz. And this novel picks up right at the beginning, at Oxford, during the Blitz. We begin with the journal of Freddie Greene, a third year student recording his everyday life at school. This section focuses on the arrival of the most interesting of characters, David Sparsholt, a young muscular first year who it turns out turns the heads of the secret group of Queer boys at the college. They just know. They just know despite his ungenerous affability that there are hidden depths or they just wish that they can have a crack at him. And through the narrative of Green, you are most definitely on their side. When this section ends, I found myself a little in tailspin because I didn’t know where the novel would go next. Because of the closeness of this narrative, the note that Freddie Greene has died at the end of the section (it turns out this is part of a lifelong narrative, and he lives for many decades hence), and because Sparsholt is a a would-be RAF pilot, I thought this was going to be a more ephemeral kind of narrative.
It turns out that David Sparsholt is not the Sparsholt we’re going to be spending most of our time. Instead, we pick up with his son Johnnie, of his first marriage to Connie, the fiance who the boys at Oxford are dubious of. Johnnie is a young lad, recently aware of his own Queerness, trying to reignite the affair with the young French lad with whom he “wrestled” the previous summer, and noticing (with a healthy dose of dramatic irony) the confusing relationship his father has with a male friend.
The novel then goes on turns like this, continuing to follow Johnnie as he grows older and revisits his life at subsequent decades of importance for brief visits.
What I thought was going to be a more ephemeral look, turns more into a multi-generational novel of a life. The title itself refers to a shadowy, but from our perspective, unshocking scandal Johnnie’s father found himself in during the late 1960s. And that’s what this novel ultimately traces through Johnnie’s life, the shifting allowances and tolerances of the UK following the war, as they also become the shifting mores themselves. The scandal, which we never really find out about, a a symbol of this change over time. Instead we get a narrative of a life where one’s own existence becomes more and more into speakable language (the way many do) and Johnnie’s father’s own hidden queerness becomes a totem for him to see, understand, and use as a marker of these changes. This is a novel about Queerness, masculinity, male relationships, family, aging, and the cultural shifts that happen quickly, but since we are never positioned outside of the perspective of Queer men looking for more liberation, progressively.