Two young men meet – for one of them this is love at first sight, for the other only lust and guilt…
In 1925 Paul Harris returns to England from self-imposed exile in Tangiers for an exhibition of his paintings. He leaves behind Patrick, the man he has loved since they met in the trenches in 1918, needing to discover if he has the strength to live without him and wanting to explore the kind of life he might have lived had it not been for the war. In Bohemian Soho, Paul meets Edmund whose passionate love changes Paul’s idea of himself. With Edmund, Paul begins to believe that he may have another life to live, free of the guilt and regrets of the past. But the past is not so easy to escape, and when Patrick follows Paul to London a decision must be made that will affect all their lives.
281 pages. Available in ebook and paperback
Review by Erastes
This is a sequel of sorts to Husband’s “The Boy I Love” which I reviewed in 2007. It’s a little confusing because the three books in the series, “The Boy I Love”, “Paper Moon”, and “All the Beauty of the Sun” were written in the order above, but the timeline is: “The Boy I Love”, “All the Beauty of the Sun” and “Paper Moon”. This is important if you were setting off to read them all in order–and I highly recommend you do because these books are stellar. Simply the pinnacle of gay historical fiction.
Husband’s prose suits me perfectly, I’m quite aware that this more literary style won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but I find her level of detail, her love for the minutiae in the depth of great emotion to be one of her greatest assets. She’s not content with someone walking with some distress through London streets; with skillful use of layering detail on detail she brings the scene to live through sights, scents, sounds, even touch. The effect of this is not only to show the protagonists emotional state, which literary fiction must rely on, but to immerse you entirely into the scene, sometimes you feel so close that you wonder that the characters can’t see you, peering in on them.
Paul Harris, whose story is more or less the mutual thread in the series, has returned from Tangiers, where he’s been living in exile with his lover, Patrick, in order to show his war paintings in a London gallery and hopefully to sell them. He’s uncertain as to whether the trip was sensible–he’s an ex convict, and would be in danger one again should his homosexuality be exposed again–and he’s left Patrick behind. He is anchored with Patrick–Patrick was his sargeant in the war, and Paul learned in the trenches to rely on Patrick–and it is Patrick that pulled Paul out of more than one terrible problems in the previous book.
Sadly though, Paul is very much “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you are with” so anyone who dislikes this ethos might want to avoid.
His story interweaves with the others in the story. Ann, the “good time girl” and artists’ model, Lawrence, straight but probably more on his wavelength than any, the gallery owner and artist, Joseph Day, love rival for Ann, and Edmund, public schoolboy and bi-curious gay virgin. Some of it is written in third person, some in first, some in stream of conciousness, so if that literary style isn’t for you, you might not want to try it, but I think you should because the writing is so utterly beautiful.
Even when it is recounting the worst of times–death in the trenches being one dark subject, the prose remains clear and honest. This isn’t–for those who find World War One unreadable–something that dwells heavily on the trenches. It’s mentioned and obviously the effects of the war still resonate with everyone, physically and mentally, but it’s not the only factor. Paul has more demons than just the war, oh yes indeed.
I can’t help but care for Paul passionately. I felt tremendously sorry for him, and the things he does in London were unwise, but I felt he was a leaf, blown about by fate and he didn’t have the fibre to hold himself upright. I think any pretty young man would have captured him. Despite what he purports to feel about Edmund, I was never fully convinced–I don’t think he could separate love and sex, and Edmund was relatively untouched by the war. He lost a brother, but he was too young to have been in himself. Perhaps it is that aspect of Edmund that draws Paul, like a moth to a flame.
I did find the relationships rather confusing, and they lent heavily on coincidence. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. Ann for example, who Paul has only met through Lawrence and Edmund, knows–and has had a relationship with–Matthew, a man who has spent years in hospital, the war drove him mad.
It’s hard to describe the plot, because other than the thread of Paul of Edmund there isn’t really much of one–but that’s no detriment. Rather it’s a “slice of life” we start watching these characters at a certain point, and we stop at a certain point. There’s no definitive ending, no neat tying up of plot lines, because this deals with life, and of course life doesn’t have genre ending.
All of the characters–and there are more than I’ve described, all of whom are connected to Paul in some way or other–are fully fleshed out, their actions and reactions explored and consequences–or the threat of consequences–worried about. I take my hat off to Husband, because she is a master juggler of plotlines, how she does it, and with such a deft touch is beyond me.
So, don’t miss this series–if you love the power of words, words rich in layer and tone without swamping themselves in the morass of “this is literature” you will love them. Can’t recommend them enough.
As a final note, I have to mention the covers. The trilogy has been republished by Accent Press with new covers and they are terribly misleading. On each cover (as you can see) there’s a close up of a beautiful woman with a war/London backdrop. Seeing that in a bookshop makes one think that you are getting a standard women’s fiction book or a romance. Granted, the back makes it clear that the story revolves around Paul and his loves but the cover? It’s baffling. If the publisher was actually afraid to put a picture of a man on “The Boy I Love” and “All the Beauty of the Sun” then it’s rather misrepresenting, and once a reader buys a book thinking it’s one thing and finds that actually it’s gay romance with some scenes with more description than the average non-gay-fiction-reader can cope with, they probably won’t come back. I would have much preferred a more honest cover, but this doesn’t affect the five star mark, of course.