The New Life

The New Life

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Author: Tom Crewe

Publisher: Chatto & Windus

Paperback

Staff Pick! Tash says…

When I bought The New Life I wasn’t going to read it immediately. I intended to take it straight home and add it to the pile on my bedside table dedicated to books to be read at a later date, usually when I feel like I have done enough work to have earned something fun. But as much as I like setting my own rules, I also like bending them, so I did what I usually do and read the first couple of lines–just to test the style. Soon enough I had finished the first chapter, and then the second, and by that point, I thought it would be best to just keep on going and finish the whole thing. I’ll let you discover for yourselves what made that first chapter so good, but I really loved this novel: Crewe is a great stylist, and it was a pleasure to read something so vital.

Crewe’s book draws (and then significantly departs) from the real working relationship between poet John Addington Symonds and sexologist Henry Havelock Ellis, and their efforts to shift the Victorian public’s opinion on homosexuality with the publication of their book, Sexual Inversion. John (a married, gay man) and Henry (a straight man married to a gay woman) connect over their shared belief in the injustice of Victorian indecency laws and hope that publishing a scientific study of homosexuality, with anonymised personal accounts, may help to create a more tolerant world. When Oscar Wilde’s arrest threatens the book’s legitimacy, both men have to decide how fully they should live the life demanded by their own convictions, and who they are willing to sacrifice as a result. As a novel about change and political activism, it is unsentimental about the personal collateral and egotism that can often accompany idealism, even as it believes in the object of that idealism. Crewe also writes beautifully, with an attuned sense of the body and the way it moves through the world; a style befitting a novel primarily concerned with sex as a political force. It won the Orwell Prize earlier this year if that sort of thing usually helps to persuade you, but I think it’s fantastic, with or without the accolades.