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The New Life by Tom Crewe

Civil rights can never be taken for granted. As a queer man, I’m well aware the rights and freedoms I enjoy every day were fought tooth and polished nail for. When I think of the heavy lifting, though, my mind rarely reaches beyond Stonewall five or so decades ago. Tom Crewe’s debut novel The New Life reminds us that the challenge to heteronormativity started long before then.

London, 1894, a year before the Oscar Wilde gross indecency trials that would put homosexuality on every front page. Women know their place; inverts don’t have one. Nature finds a way, beyond reach of the lamp light in alleyways or behind a veil in the poems of Whitman. In intellectual circles and clandestine pamphlets, talk emerges of a New Life, beyond the corner of a new century: an enlightened time when sexuality is examined scientifically, women join the conversation and relationships break old moulds. The New Life is loosely based on the lives of John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis, who together wrote Sexual Inversion, a revolutionary book that challenged prejudices about male homosexuality. This is no dry archival account. Crewe is a historian, and the text brims with vivid detail and vibrant colour, rescuing the characters from period abstraction. The prose is pure rhythm and melody – I caught myself re-reading passages out loud just to listen to the sound some sentences made. Nor is it hagiography. John and Henry (as they’re known here) are multi-faceted human beings, with complex personal motives they don’t always fathom. Their work is both heroic and selfish, liberating and likely to land collaborators in jail, hopeful yet harmful to the ones they love. While this is a book about men’s fears and desires, the women are given a powerful voice when speaking about their condition and aspiration, one that resonates through the ages. It is also - unafraid of its own subject - very sexy, moments of cinematic sensuality piercing through the wall of time. The New Life is less about social justice than the inexorable force of lust, how sexual desire cannot be contained, appetites of the body overriding the mind to lay society’s best (and most coercive) intentions to waste.

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