Alan Hollinghurst’s mellifluous prose is as fine and subtly shaded as ever, and his full, persuasive immersion of the reader in the book’s far-flung eras is impeccable.

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Book review

“The Sparsholt Affair”

by Alan Hollinghurst

Knopf, 417 pp., $28.95

British author Alan Hollinghurst writes fat novels — and they’re fat for good reason.

Hollinghurst wants you to have an all-encompassing sense of your surroundings: the light, the furnishings, the ambient chatter, the furtive eye contact and body language of everyone partaking in the scene. But while his surfaces are elaborate, he keeps you guessing at what’s happening beneath them.

“The Sparsholt Affair,” the latest novel by the Man Booker Prize winner (“The Line of Beauty,” “The Swimming-Pool Library”), spans 70 odd years from World War II to 2012. In structure, it resembles Hollinghurst’s 2011 masterpiece, “The Stranger’s Child,” as it touches down in English decades so different from one another that it’s difficult to credit they have a single country in common.

Where “The Stranger’s Child” traced how the living, breathing existence of a minor World War I poet became a biographical subject riddled with omissions and distortions, “The Sparsholt Affair” circles around one specific incident: a 1966 gay-sex scandal that’s more alluded to than spelled out.

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The action opens in World War II Oxford where a close group of friends becomes obsessed — some lustfully, some more anthropologically — with new arrival 17-year-old David Sparsholt, who’s passing through for a term before joining the RAF. Narrator Freddie Green gives a detached account of David’s straightforward nature (he likes to keep fit, has a fiancée named Connie, can’t wait to do his bit in the war). At the same time, Freddie serves as sounding board to two gay friends — painter Peter Coyle, budding art collector Evert Dax — who’ve set their sights on David.

To Freddie’s surprise, both men are briefly able to bend David to their will. A red-pencil sketch by Peter — depicting a nude, muscular David from the neck down — winds up in Evert’s hands. Then everyone disperses: Peter and David to war, Freddie to intelligence work, Evert to his rarefied art world.

With a jump to 1966, the spotlight shifts to Johnny Sparsholt, 14-year-old son of David and Connie. We see the rest of the novel mostly through Johnny’s eyes. As we move ahead to 1974, 1995 and 2012 — with every leap forward in time introducing new characters and new perspectives — Holling­hurst drops hints on the tabloid scandal that’s shadowed Johnny all his life.

Johnny is gay himself and perfectly open about it. As a successful portrait artist, he finds himself drawn into the same artsy circles his father fleetingly encountered in 1940. And as Hollinghurst shows Johnny in his various incarnations — youth, middle age, imminent old age — he stays ever alert to “a pattern of joining and dividing paths” among the many characters inhabiting the novel.

Through it all Johnny must cope with his “unruly and incompetently managed feelings about his father.” When David finally comes back into direct view, after a 250-page absence, he remains as enigmatic as ever — and an obstinately tough nut for his son to crack.

“The Sparsholt Affair,” like most Hollinghurst novels, has a rich symphonic sweep as it makes its points and counterpoints. Of special note is an echo of Johnny and David’s father-son dynamic in a subplot concerning Evert and his father, a self-important novelist who’s also a compulsive womanizer.

The novel’s study of how a single sensational event reverberates across the decades has slightly less depth than Hollinghurst’s brilliant tracking of how an extravagant and carnal creature becomes mere archival material in “The Stranger’s Child.”

Still, Hollinghurst’s mellifluous prose is as fine and subtly shaded as ever, and his full, persuasive immersion of the reader in the book’s far-flung eras is impeccable.