All the Beauty of the Sun is the sequel to The Boy I Love and opens five years after the close of the first novel. In between a lot has happened - Paul has been arrested, incarcerated and divorced; he and Patrick have emigrated to Tangiers; Paul's ex-wife Margot has remarried and told her young son that his father is dead.
All of this we learn as the novel unfolds; it has already happened and the characters are now dealing with the aftermath of the upheaval in their lives. This is a technique Husband employed in The Boy I Love - she doesn't write about events, she writes around them; her books are nothing so much as psychological studies of the after-effects of trauma. Just as she doesn't narrate the war itself in The Boy I Love, nor does she narrate Paul's disgrace and incarceration in All the Beauty of the Sun.
The novel opens with Paul's return to London, ostensibly to oversee a gallery opening of some of his war paintings, but in his heart Paul is homesick, he's missed England - his life in Tangiers, as magical as it appears from the outside, feels like an exile. Unlike Patrick, he didn't choose that life for himself, he never imagined that would be how he would live and he struggles to reconcile how things have turned out with how he always thought that they would.
Paul is an unusual character. Not entirely sympathetic - the man hasn't got a faithful bone in his body, for a start - but then he's been so hurt, so damaged and so broken that one can't help feeling for him. Patrick's description of Paul's keening; his slow, broken whimpers as he curls up in the middle of a busy street and retreats into some secret part of his soul where he feels nothing but fear and desperation, is truly heartbreaking.
The impression I get from Paul is that he's a man who needs to be loved - not just in the abstract, but definitely, categorically and constantly loved. He cannot turn down an opportunity to get what he needs, even if it's only for five minutes in a public bathroom with a policeman watching. He simply cannot help himself. As Patrick recognises, for Paul, there will never be enough sex.
Patrick makes so few demands of Paul that it's devastating when he can't meet them. All Pat asks is that Paul doesn't sleep with anyone else while he's in London, but he knows before Paul even leaves that he will. Yet Pat stays with him, unable to leave, willing to forgive every transgression as long as Paul still comes home to him.
Paul's betrayal of Patrick reads almost like a bid for freedom, a child acting out - he tells his father he literally cannot live without him; no melodrama, just fact, but he doesn't want to be that dependent on anyone, he wants to be able to live his own life without relying so heavily on someone else. And yet the only time he thinks he might - might - be able to live without Patrick is when he considers replacing him with Edmund. Exchanging one crutch for another.
Edmund represents everything that Paul feels he's lost. Young, innocent, Edmund didn't fight in the war; was, indeed, barely affected by it. With Edmund, Paul feels young again, like the man he was in 1916 before his world changed forever. Paul sees his life as a crossroads; if he can find a way of returning to that pivotal point before the war then perhaps he can move forward and lead the life that he should have lived instead. In that sense, Patrick embodies everything that's wrong with Paul's life - his fragility, his brokenness; Patrick knows the secrets of Paul's past, and while he does everything in his power to keep Paul sane, his mere presence is a reminder of all the terrible things that Paul has done and wants to forget.
Paul's greatest tragedy, perhaps, is that he is loved; deeply loved by those around him. Yet when they profess their love he rejects it, it makes him uncomfortable. He actively dislikes Edmund saying that he loves him, he tries to stop him from saying it, and he shies away from Edmund's attempts to get closer - his desire to see him without his glass eye; his casual references to their lives in fifty years' time. That very idea of that kind of commitment scares him, perhaps because, deep down, he doesn't feel that he deserves to be loved.
We also have to ask, as readers, if Paul himself truly loves anyone else at all.
Perhaps, though, Paul understands at a deeper level that the love the other characters have for him is conditional - he always was his father's favourite, but George can't bring himself to go to Tangiers because Paul lives there with another man; Edmund professes his love, but he's repulsed when Paul loses control and cannot be comforted when he cries. Only Patrick - stoical, solid Patrick - accepts Paul for who he really is, flaws and all. Yet Pat represses a great deal, he doesn't let his own anger and hurt and frustration show for fear of scaring Paul away for good.
Paul left Morocco because he was homesick for England, yet when in London he cannot help but miss his home - the sun, the food, the sparrows playing alongside the fountain in his courtyard. The picture painted of their house in Tangiers is a magical, perfect, fairytale image; one that is never entirely clear, probably as much fantasy as it is reality. His personality seems such that the grass will always be greener, he will always be dissatisfied with his lot.
The narrative is broken by the writings of Matthew - Paul's friend, an ex-Father ex-Major who currently resides in an asylum, his mind ruined by the war. Matthew is granted a first person voice, the only character whose thoughts and feelings come to us directly. Matthew is the anchor, the enabler - he is the glue that binds all the characters in this novel together and like a puppet master he pulls the strings from a distance. It is Matthew, we learn, who introduced Paul to Lawrence, the gallery owner who shows his work. Matthew met Lawrence through Ann, a barmaid who worked for his cousin, who became the lover of first Lawrence and then Edmund and - once - of Matthew himself (a scene that results in another bout of madness).
Matthew, then, is a significant character. One is left wondering what the truth is about him - is he mad or wise? Are his ravings those of a lunatic, or the truths of a man touched by God? Is he a prophet or is he insane? More, why does he get the epilogue when it says nothing about his own life and everything about everyone elses? Matthew is a man torn between love and hate, he says the most vicious things when he is simply telling the truth, and he never appears more sane than when he is at his maddest. The other characters love him and forgive him because his mind is broken, yet they fear, deep down, that Matthew is the man who sees all, freed from the restrains of decorum and civilisation by the label of madness.
Rather like The Boy I Love, All the Beauty of the Sun affords us a brief glimpse into the lives of Husband's characters; there is no conventional narrative arc of beginning-middle-end, rather we start looking, and then we stop. Where they've been and where they're going to go outside of the narrative is open; the ending is another enigma, devoid of either hope or despair. As I said with The Boy I Love, it is what it is.
Husband presents the facts, unflinchingly exposing her character's many, many flaws and insecurities and weaknesses but always doing so in such a way that you cannot help but love them, cannot help but feel their pain and want to lift it from them. There are no black-and-whites in her narrative; none of the "he's a cheater, he's a bastard" trope that you see so often in less nuanced romance novels. In a more conventional story Paul would be a cheating bastard, Patrick would be a spineless sap and Edmund would be the dreaded 'other man', but that's not the case in this book. Instead all of the characters have their flaws and their appeal, they are fully-rounded, full-human, with all a human's frailty and strength. Indeed, the main romance in this story is between the reader and the world Husband creates, and of course the people who inhabit it.
All the Beauty of the Sun is available from Amazon.
Kate Aaron is the bestselling author of contemporary and fantasy gay romances.
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