Jonathan Kemp’s 2010 debut novel comes as close to what I would call a complete work of art as anything I have encountered so far this century. London Triptych is a at once a poignant and sympathetically observed character study, a compelling work of historical fiction comprising trenchant social critique, and a vivid evocation of the eternally-unfinished, perpetually renewed and renewing city of its title. Here, the stories of three gay men from three different times play out and sometimes overlap; Jack Rose, a young rent boy in the late Victorian period, Colin Read, an artist in the cruelly closeted 1950s, and David, a male prostitute, writing a letter to his lover and betrayer from a prison cell in 1998--a poignant echo of Oscar Wilde's De Profundis from a century earlier.
Jack’s search for pleasure and profit lead him into the shabby, exuberant demimonde of queer life in 1890s’ London, where he eventually meets an aging Wilde. Lonely and still deeply naïve at fifty-four, Colin lives a severely buttoned-up existence, in constant fear of being found out, only to be coaxed out of his shell by, Gregory (Gore) a beautiful young model. Growing up in the 1980s, David escapes the stifling conformity of small-town life to seek fortune and adventure in the city as a prostitute and porn actor. The three stories are neatly tied together by Gore, who, in the 1950s is acquainted with Jack, a man by then in his seventies. Gore goes on to become one of young David’s clients in the 1990s.)
The stories may be as striking for their similarities as their differences: each of these characters makes the ultimate mistake of falling in love where love is forbidden or simply foolish, inevitably leading to betrayal and desolation. There are no happy endings, but only life continuing for better or for worse—fiction is seldom more real than this.
As readers have come to expect, Kemp’s writing is gorgeous, clear and confident with a rich vein of metaphor, often approaching the poetic, yet never becoming overly effusive or strained. Seldom has a debut novel been so well organized or cleverly thought out with such near-perfect economy of expression, eschewing the inessential so as to evoke a world like no other.