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An exquisite debut novel. A mid-life coming-of-age story charting one man's sexual awakening and his spectacular fall from grace in 1990s London, raising questions about art and beauty, sex and censure. For fans of Allan Hollinghurst and Edward St Aubyn.
A BBC "BOOKS OF 2022" PICK
Ben turns and grins ironically. 'When you stopped just now and looked at the sky, you weren't measuring it. You weren't thinking about classical proportion. You were feeling something.'
Cambridge, 1994. Professor Don Lamb is a revered art historian at the height of his powers, consumed by the book he is writing about the skies of the Venetian master Tiepolo. However, his academic brilliance belies a deep inexperience of life and love.
When an explosive piece of contemporary art is installed on the lawn of his college, it sets in motion Don's abrupt departure from Cambridge to take up a role at a south London museum. There he befriends Ben, a young artist who draws him into the anarchic 1990s British art scene and the nightlife of Soho.
Over the course of one long, hot summer, Don glimpses a liberating new existence. But his epiphany is also a moment of self-reckoning, as his oldest friendship - and his own unexamined past - are revealed to him in a devastating new light. As Don's life unravels, he suffers a fall from grace that that shatters his world into pieces.
Author: James Cahill
Paperback Published 25 July 2023 352 pages
Originally published in trade paperback 14 June 2022
Read and Recommended by Graeme:
"This debut novel is immensely readable, even though the main character is a divisive figure - Professor Don Lamb is a conservative and traditional art historian who is finding his certainties and his place in 1990s academia eroded away as times change around him. His world is upended when he takes exception to a new art installation at Peterhouse College, Cambridge (inspired by Tracey Emin’s famous My Bed) and makes the mistake of resoundingly disparaging it as an art work on a radio talk show. He finds himself in disgrace but his colleague, best friend and mentor Valentine Black manages to orchestrate a career transition to a prestigious London art gallery (not dissimilar to the Dulwich Picture Gallery). It is there that Don becomes entangled with Ben, a handsome young artist, who awakens the desires he has studiously buried for decades. As the novel progresses Don becomes increasingly unreliable as the book’s narrator - he is often inebriated, hungover or unravelling mentally. The reader finds themselves wincing at his decisions and behaviour as he lurches (often in an intoxicated state) from one disaster to the next. Gradually he erodes away the favour of his old boy network, friends and allies, while a pervasive sense of unease and ambiguity hovers over the narrative. What exactly is Val up to with his machinations and obfuscations? What does Ben want from Don and where has he vanished to? By the end of the novel some of the questions have been answered, others are left more ambiguous."
"Imagine if Hollinghurst and Murdoch collaborated on a witty update of Death in Venice and you'll see the appeal of James Cahill's assured debut." -- Patrick Gale