London Triptych by Jonathan Kemp

I’ve been putting off reviewing this book because I haven’t quite known how to. It’s one of those books that just flooded me with emotion. It sort of connected for me all at once….and when the book really worked for me, it REALLY worked for me. It’s not a book that I think will work for everyone. There’s lots of graphic sex in the book, it makes assumptions about the life of Oscar Wilde (which bugged me at first), and delves into the lives of male prostitutes. But it is all done in such a true and beautiful and raw and honest way. And the language of the book….god, it’s like pure poetry.

I first heard about this book from the Green Carnation Prize. It’s a new prize that last year (it’s first year) awarded it’s award to the best book in gay male literature. This was one of the finalists. Next year the award will be open to lesbian and bisexual fiction as well. I can certainly see why this book was up for the award after reading it. It examines so much about gay culture…it delves into the history of gay rights by showing storylines set in the late 19th century, the 1950’s and late 1990s. It examines the interactions of gay men and the law during all three times. It shows how the underground world of male prostitutes changed, yet at the same way remained the same during those time periods. It showed how that world affected the boys that served as prostitutes. How gay men interacted in public and in secrecy. Why they HAD to interact in secrecy.

As I said, the book is set in three different time periods. The first story line is set in the late 19th century and follows a young boy who becomes a prostitute at a brothel after leaving his parents’ house at a young age. One of his client’s ends up being none other than Oscar Wilde himself. At first, I didn’t know how I felt about this particular plot. The author actually stuck as much to the history of Wilde’s trial as possible, but of COURSE he invented the relationship that forms between Wilde and the young boy, Jack. As I continued reading though the story though, I started to find that I loved Wilde’s character. Kemp seemed to capture the spirit that I imagine Wilde would have had perfectly. And this story itself was wonderful, though as you can imagine if you know Wilde’s history, tragic in the end.

The second time period is the 1950’s where a middle aged man is still coming to terms with his own sexuality. Having failed at a marriage, he now lives alone and often gets lost in his own thoughts often feeling deep shame for them. He draws as a past time and hires a model to pose for him and it’s this model that brings out intense feelings of passion in him. The model is a younger man who is much more open with his sexuality and often sees “clients” for money. But the relationship between them exists at first as solely artist and model. Until the artist begins to fall in love with him and cannot deny his feelings. This section is an exploration of coming to terms with one’s sexuality along with the main connecting piece to the three stories.

The final storyline is set in the 1990’s where being gay is much more accepted than the other two times. It’s written from the point of view of a young man in prison and we do not know why he is in prison. He writes his story in the form of a letter to a past love. Another young man that he met and shared quite a passionate experience with. Both of the boys have been in the prostitution business, but have managed to form a bond with each other that they are unable to find with the random clients that they pick up. This was by far the most beautiful of all of the stories.

As I mentioned, these stories do eventually connect in a way. In many ways actually. What Kemp did with this book was just genius in my opinion. There are so many connecting themes throughout the novel. Theme’s mentioned above. The title refers both to the three story lines and of course the drawing that our artist does. Kemp admits that Wilde’s life and work was a huge influence in this book and it’s quite obvious. The language of the book is something not to be missed. There are passages that read like pure poetry…passages that you swear that someone like Oscar Wilde himself must have written. I often forget that there are still writers around that write so well….so beautifully. These writers, like Kemp, remind you that language can truly be an art form.

As I mentioned earlier, this book isn’t for everyone. If you’re offended by graphic sex (particularly male/male sex), drug use and cursing, then this one probably isn’t for you. And normally that description might point you to some type of fluff read, but let me ASSURE you that this novel is anything but fluff. It’s a beautiful story that I would recommend highly to those that are up for it. Can’t wait to see what Kemp writes next.

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9 Responses

  1. I wish this was a book I could read, but I’m really glad you warned me that it’s not…

  2. Sounds brilliant, Chris, have added it to my ‘find it’ list. Lovely review.

  3. I have to say that looking at the cover and then reading the review, I never would have connected the two! Great review, though!

  4. Wow, this sounds kind of awesome. I might have to check it out!!

  5. Amanda and I are on the same train. Thanks for the warning. Graphic sex makes for skipsters. Do not like.

  6. I know I already told you this, but I thought this review was simply beautiful, Chris. You know who will be getting a point for this one somewhere down the road. 🙂

  7. Wow. I was going to skip this because I was thinking it was likely a rehash of the same ole. But now I see this is a more complex book than I thought.

  8. I saw this around recently and saved it as a book to eventually buy. Sounds like I need to move it up higher on my list. It sounds like a wonderful story. I’m fascinated by Oscar Wilde, and find even fictional takes on his life to be interesting…I’d love to see how the three storylines connect. Thanks for the wonderful review.

  9. This sounds wonderful! Although I’m not sure I could take reading such a tragic story right now. I’ll put it on the list for when I’m not in need of escapist reading!

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