THE NEW LIFE – Tom Crewe

  • Aardvark Book Club sent me a few of their recent selections along with a promo code.  That promo code has expired, but if you’re looking for a monthly book subscription that rivals BOTM, Aardvark is it.  The selections are fantastic, customer service is top notch, and it’s a fun community.  (The monthly hints are a lot of fun.) There’s now a skip feature and shipping is getting better all the time.  They’re still running promos, and you can get your first book for $4. So, check it out.  Today’s review is from their January selections, and you can see the aardvark logo in the corner.  (It’s printed on the dustjacket and cover – it’s not a sticker.)  Now to the book review.

Tom Crewe’s debut novel, The New Life (Scribner 2023), is historical fiction based on actual events.  Crewe plays a little bit with the timeline and reimagines documented relationships as well as creates new ones.  In the Afterword, he writes “Truths needn’t always depend on facts for their expression.” Crewe is a novelist; he’s not a historian, and this novel, while based on actual events, is fiction.  And while it may not be historically accurate, it is extremely impactful.

The novel opens in 1894, when homosexuality between men was illegal in the UK.  (It wasn’t decriminalized in England until the 1960s.)  John Addington, a renowned essayist and poet, collaborates with Henry Ellis, a doctor, on a book arguing that “sexual inversion” should be decriminalized because it is as natural “as a fish swimming.”  John is married with adult children. His wife is aware that he is an “invert,” but he has done a very buttoned up job of locking up his attractions and keeping his sexual relationships private – that is, until Frank, a gorgeous working-class man who makes John not want to hide or restrict his feelings anymore.  Henry, while not a homosexual, has his own “sexual perversion” that has made relationships rather difficult for him. He’s married, but it’s truly a marriage of friendship and mutual respect; his wife prefers the company of women. 

As Henry and John gather case studies to be included in the book, John becomes more open with his relationship with Frank. Henry struggles with his relationship with Edith and his own sexual desires.  Amid writing the book and personal struggles and victories, Oscar Wilde is put on trial. Suddenly, the magnitude of what this book means and the impact it could have hits a bit differently.

The novel is sexy and passionate, but that’s cloaked in fear and shame and anger.  John just wants to be free, but his journey to freedom comes at what cost?  Who would suffer should he defend his book and his lifestyle?  What and who will he lose if he is open about his relationship with Frank?  The impacts would ripple out in unforeseeable ways, hurting those he cares most about.  How Crewe handles John’s relationship with his wife and with his adult children is both tender and brutal, but absolutely exquisite.

The New Life will make some people uncomfortable, and not always for the same reason.  From the subject matter to the historical inaccuracies to the spicy scenes to the writing style itself, this book isn’t going to float everyone’s boat.  My issues are more with the execution – the slow burn of getting to the collaboration was a bit off-putting.

All that to say, read this book.

*And if there was any doubt, this reviewer knows that love is love.*

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