Three men, three lives and three eras sinuously entwine in a dark, startling and unsettling narrative of sex, exploitation and dependence set against London’s strangely constant gay underworld.
Read first chapter
Jack Rose begins his apprenticeship as a rent boy with Alfred Taylor in the 1890s, and finds a life of pleasure and excess leads him to new friendships — most notably with the soon-to-be infamous Oscar Wilde. A century later, David tells his own tale of unashamed decadence while waiting to be released from prison, addressing his story to the lover who betrayed him. Where their paths cross, in the politically sensitive 1950s, the artist Colin Read tentatively explores his sexuality as he draws in preparation for his most ambitious painting yet — ‘London Triptych’.
Rent boys, aristocrats, artists and felons populate this bold debut as Jonathan Kemp skilfully interweaves the lives and loves of three very different men across the decades.
Jonathan Kemp is also the author of Twentysix and Ghosting.
Erotica for the Big Brain20 December 2016
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.
Amy Reads26 November 2010
The three characters and stories showed the differences in the years but also gave voice, masterfully, to those normally silenced. Kemp shows that the way we see the world is not actually necessarily the way it is or the way that others see it. An interesting read that not only uses a unique way to tell a story but does so incredibly well.View source
Times Literary Supplement
London itself, in its relentless indifference, is as powerful a presence here as the three gay men whose lives it absorbs.
Despite reaching across a century, Kemp's characters are believable and down to earth; the focus is not on period setting but on dialogue. A thoroughly absorbing and pacy read... a fresh angle on gay life and on the oldest profession.
What an amazing book. This is the best gay novel to be published in many years... It is literary fiction at its best.
An ambitious work in which he aims to 'give voice to the voiceless'... Fast-moving and sharply written.
An interestingly equivocal and quietly questioning debut.
Charting three very different affairs taking place against the backdrop of three very different Londons, Jonathan Kemp's first novel is a thought-provoking enquiry into what changes in gay mens' lives as the decades pass - and what doesn't. As the connections and reflections across the years reveal themselves, this is a book that will make you think - and make you feel.
Vivid and visceral, London Triptych cuts deep to reveal the hidden layers of a secret history.
Astonishingly textured prose and wonderfully defined narrative voices... I recognised the characters immediately and wanted to follow them.
Quiet Riot Girl
This brilliant debut novel creates a unique atmosphere, and brings to life characters that are so real they jump out of the pages and into your imagination. London Triptych was shortlisted for the Polari Prize for ‘queer’ writing. But I think it is a worthy winner of any fiction prize. Read it and be dazzled!
What Kemp did with this book was just genius... The language of the book is something not to be missed. There are passages that read like pure poetry... passages that you swear that someone like Oscar Wilde himself must have written. I often forget that there are still writers around that write so well... so beautifully. These writers, like Kemp, remind you that language can truly be an art form.
With his debut novel, Kemp has achieved what few writers ever will, a work that stands alone as a heartbreaking love letter not only to a vast and fascinating place, but also to the lives within that serve as its beating heart.
Pink Sheep Cafe
London Triptych is, hands down, the most heart-wrenching and profound piece of literature I have read this year.
Every now and then a novel comes out that makes you pause, exhale, and take a long hard look at your life. You start to contemplate where you are, the choices you have made, where you are going and what you could feasibly do to get there. Jonathan Kemp’s debut novel is one such book. It is not only a devastatingly honest expose of our hidden gay past, but a heartbreaking examination of the intricacies of the gay psyche. As the figures over-lap, re-emerge and reflect one another the reader is given a breathtakingly tender portrait of betrayal and unrequited love. The final revelation, that gay experience is universal and timeless, is both shattering and oddly inspiring. Above all, this is a story about the power of feeling and the hope and beauty that can be found in even the darkest places.
Every now and again a new voice appears, someone whose stories speak to us on many levels. This first novel by Jonathan Kemp is one of those books... It’s the story of three different men, from three different periods of history who all have a few things in common; their attraction to men, their lives in flux and a blunt internal honesty about their decadent exploited situations. The patchwork crossover of their lives and destinies is explored with a voice that sometimes reminded me of Alan Hollingshurst and other times soared into the metaphorically agonised realms of Elizabeth Smart... Kemp is an academic and this shows in his attention to historical detail and his ear for sometimes salty dialogue; his summoning up of late Victorian London, 1950’s suburbia and the underground gay scene of London is touch perfect... I didn’t want this excellent book to end... let's hope that Mr Jonathan Kemp keeps up this momentum and delights us with the products of his vivid and insightful imagination for some while yet.
It’s very rare to feel the same sense of exhilaration after reading a book that you do after being lost in a fantastic movie. But Jonathan Kemp’s London Triptych is such a richly painted and involving story, told from the point of view of three gay men living in London fifty years apart, that your mind has no problem at all visualising his words. A prostitute in Oscar Wilde’s London, a repressed artist in the 1950s and a hedonistic rent boy in late 90s share similar experiences of sexual dependence and obsessive desire. The structure of the book is consecutive, i.e. each character takes chapter turns, so that after the first, you have to wait until chapter 4 to hear from that character again and so on…this caused me to race through proceedings since I was so taken with all three of them!
First time novelist Kemp’s book is an intriguing look at the homosexual experience through the prism of male prostitution over the past 100 years.
A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook
From living outside the law to living outside the society, as the connections between these men reveal themselves, one realizes that times are irrelevant when it comes to the sentiment of gay men: one of turmoil, of irretrievable loss, of struggle over stigma, and of unrequited love. London Triptych captures these political and emotional battles with a lyrical beauty and raw lucidity.
London Triptych might find itself nestled between other works of gay historical fiction on the bookshop shelves, but its central theme – freedom and the pursuit of it – is universal. The debut novel by Stoke Newington resident Jonathan Kemp, it offers a gritty, sometimes smutty, glimpse into the hidden world of male prostitution in London via three lives in three decades.
If you're looking for a summer read with a twist, London Triptych will keep you hooked as it explores the secret history of male prostitutes from the perspective of three men living in three very different eras. Together the stories entwine, shedding light on London's murky and marvellous gay underworld. A dark novel about exploitation and betrayal that's full of rent boys, aristos and artists. That's got to beat the new Marian Keyes any day, right?
By turns explicit and energetic, Kemp's forceful prose uncompromisingly draws the reader in. A strange, squalid, rather interesting book.
There is a deceptively relaxed quality to Kemp's writing that is disarming, bewitching and, to be honest, more than a little sexy... The three stories explore a subculture and an underworld that is hidden from the everyday, yet whilst they are historically and socially distinct tales each one echoes a universal experience. As a writer Jonathan is akin to the Pied Piper, if only because there is something magical you cannot help but follow.View source
Kemp's language is beautiful; his characters are carefully drawn and the dialogue engaging. The narratives overlap and are all the more moving for their subtlety. Drawing inspiration from the life and work of Oscar Wilde, just as Michael Cunningham's The Hoursdrew from Virginia Woolf, London Triptych is a touching and engrossing read.