Gabriel Roth on Kensington Park Gardens from Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty
Kensington Park Gardens in Notting Hill, London, 1983. A summer evening “when the wide treeless street was raked by the sun, and the two white terraces stared at each other with the glazed tolerance of rich neighbours.” Nicholas Guest, a lodger, finds himself temporarily in possession of one of the big white houses.
Nick is a scholarship boy from the provinces who has insinuated himself into the home of a rising Tory MP and his aristocratic wife. What he covets is their easy, unthinking access to beauty: “the pictures, the porcelain, the curvy French furniture.” Behind the house is a communal garden, “big as the central park of some old European city, but private, and densely hedged on three sides … There were one or two places … where someone who wasn’t a keyholder could see through to a glade among the planes and tall horse chestnuts.”
Nick is in a liminal position—a keyholder, for the moment, but not an owner. He savors life in Kensington Park Gardens with an avidity its rightful residents could never muster. The communal gardens become the site of his first sexual experience. He discovers, eventually, that the beauty he pursues is obtained with money and power, things that are not themselves beautiful.
Before his final exile, Nick gets a vision of the street’s history, “the years since the whole speculation rose up out of the Notting Hill paddocks and slums.” That was 160 years ago. With enough perspective all richesse is nouveau, all beauty an improbable gamble.
Gabriel Roth is the author of The Unknowns (Little Brown)