For more than a decade, the Thatcher years have been a touchstone for British novelists of all genres. The Line of Beauty, winner of the Man Booker Prize and set between the two general elections that kept Thatcher in office, is literary fiction of the best sort: beautifully written, perfectly plotted and full of meaningful allusions.

Nick Guest has come to London to live with the family of his Oxford friend, Toby Fedden, son of a Tory recently elected to Parliament from Nick's home constituency. Unbeknownst to Toby, who has never really understood why he and Nick were friends, "but had amiably accepted the evidence that they were," Nick has recently accepted his sexual identity and is eagerly joining the gay world of 1983 before both AIDS and general acceptance. Nick is a graduate student whose hero is Henry James, with whom he shares the ability to "stand a great deal of gilt." Nick Guest is perfectly named: he is a perpetual visitor, first in the Fedden household; then in a sex-in-the-bushes relationship with his black, older lover, whom he meets through an ad; and finally, as the novel progresses to 1986 and 1987 when AIDS has surfaced and begun to kill, as the employee and lover of the beautiful, wealthy Lebanese Wani, another Oxford friend, whose fiancŽe is paid an allowance by his mother to remain his fiancŽe.

Like most of James' protagonists, Nick is not entirely likeable or sympathetic: he finds the "etiquette" of preparing a line of cocaine as satisfyingly beautiful a ritual as James does that of taking afternoon tea in The Portrait of a Lady. Nick is not unlike Isabel Archer, the heroine of that James novel, in that circumstances ultimately put him in the position of victim, but Nick whose sexual preference has made him vulnerable, a situation which could easily have been caused by race, gender or class in another time never takes that convenient out. Hollinghurst writes with the precision and desire for psychological clarity of a modern James, and the novel, despite its serious concerns, is often drolly funny. Nick would be happy to know that the spirit of The Master lives on. Joanne Collings reviews from Washington, D.C.

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