Picks and Pans Review: While England Sleeps

updated 11/01/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/01/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

by David Leavitt

Love makes us young, but the world makes us old," says the narrator of David Leavitt's extraordinary and long-awaited novel. A story of erotic and political passion told by an aging Hollywood screenwriter, While England Sleeps breaks new ground for Leavitt, whose four previous books, including Family Dancing and The Lost Language of Cranes, dealt primarily with the conflicts between gay men and their families.

Brian Botsford is an aristocratic young Cambridge graduate living in late 1930s London. Botsford is a perennial outsider: half-Jewish and homosexual, suffering from a severe case of writer's block. He is totally dependent on the sporadic charity of his Aunt Constance, a prolific pulp novelist who believes Brian belongs with a suitable young woman.

Despite Brian's belief—or secret hope—that he'll outgrow his sexual preference, he soon falls in love with Edward, a soft-spoken, working-class boy who sells tickets for the London Underground. Brian and Edward move in together, and it is in the domestic scenes that Leavitt builds a tangible, erotic portrait of gay life in an earlier time: "How thrilling and dirty it was to strip off at five in the afternoon...while our lady neighbors spread their toast with Marmite and spoke of the Royal Family!"

In the end, Aunt Constance proves too much for Brian, and he succumbs to a futile attempt at a romance with a young woman. In so doing, he creates a web of lies that ultimately backfires and forever changes the course of his life.

This deeply moving novel shows the dangers of betrayal in youth—its repercussions not only for the betrayed but for the betrayer himself. "Who touches the body, however fleetingly, also touches the soul," writes Leavitt, who has delivered on his early promise and then some.

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