The Novel That Inspired Harry Styles and Emma Corrin’s Upcoming Film

The Novel That Inspired Harry Styles and Emma Corrin’s Upcoming Film

The Novel That Inspired Harry Styles and Emma Corrin’s Upcoming Film

The Novel That Inspired Harry Styles and Emma Corrin’s Upcoming Film

MY POLICEMAN
By Bethan Roberts

Maybe you saw the paparazzi shots that leaked last spring: Harry Styles and Emma Corrin, two of Britain’s most feverishly obsessed-over young stars, hanging out together on a pebbly beach in the resort town of Brighton. Decked out in 1950s leisure wear, they were shooting a scene for their upcoming film, “My Policeman,” based on Bethan Roberts’s stunning 2012 novel.

For all the hand-wringing that film and television have eclipsed literary fiction at the center of the cultural conversation, it must be acknowledged that occasionally cinema saves novels from mildewed obscurity. Certainly that is the case with “My Policeman,” at least for American audiences; it took the flurry of interest in the upcoming film for Roberts’s novel — her third of five to date — to be published in the United States. Less a love triangle than a battle of dueling guitars, the novel concerns a handsome closeted police officer, his gentle, long-suffering wife and his secret lover, an erudite, slightly older museum curator. Roberts’s lachrymose gay novel is nine years overdue in becoming a sensation here.

When “My Policeman” was first published in Britain, there was only one star attached to it — a person arguably even more influential than Harry Styles. Roberts based her three-pronged affaire de coeur on the novelist E. M. Forster’s long-term relationship with a police officer, Bob Buckingham (they met in 1930), and Buckingham’s preternaturally open-minded wife, May. Whereas Forster’s devotion resulted in a kind of peaceable domestic codependency with the married couple (the Buckinghams not only made Forster their son’s godfather, but May tended to the writer on his deathbed), Roberts’s messy collision of desires and drives leads to thwarted dreams, heartbreak, betrayal and a prison sentence. It’s a story as old as time, but, to my mind, it’s never been told so effectively, principally because Roberts invests us emotionally in both sides of the tug-of-war.

The narrative toggles between the 1957 diary entries of Patrick Hazlewood, wealthy and educated, who encounters a hunky patrolman named Tom Burgess on the Brighton streets, and the scribbled reflections in 1999 of Marion, Tom’s wife, who has taken Patrick into her home to care for him after a debilitating stroke. Through these competing narratives, Roberts portrays the clashing love stories of both Marion and Patrick, dogged rivals for Tom’s heart. One side offers the socially sanctified but deeply unsatisfying trappings of heterosexual marriage, the other the sexual passion and aesthetic sophistication of illicit 1950s cosmopolitan gay life. Tom, the object of desire, remains a cipher throughout. But Marion and Patrick come alive in their respective sections, serving as complicated, convincing and, at times, justifiably petty protagonists. Roberts is terrific at sensory details — Marion, a teacher, describes the smell of school as “sweet milk and chalk dust, mixed with children’s sweat”; when Patrick first catches sight of Tom, he thinks “immediately of that wonderful Greek boy with the broken arm in the British Museum. The way he glows with beauty and strength, the way the warmth of the Mediterranean exudes from him.”

The novel’s real achievement lies in how Roberts recodes the stereotypical desires of a straight, provincial woman and a fey, posh, gay man. It is Marion who is cast as the outsider and interloper, and her cravings for Tom are rendered in a manner that has traditionally been reserved for unrequited homosexual yearnings. She describes her infatuation with Tom as “unnatural,” and during their troubled courtship admits to feeling “intense and secret things.” Meanwhile, Patrick, who does have fulfilling sex with Tom, harbors a more conventional fantasy, “as though we were — well, married.”

It’s hard to think of a more pointed possessive adjective in a book title than the one lurking like an open secret in “My Policeman.” Roberts’s novel concludes with a life-shattering act of duplicity. It’s not a happy story. It’s better than that, fraught and honest. As Patrick concedes in his diary, seeking out “a policeman’s gaze is an extremely risky business.” Sometimes, the thrill of the risk is reason enough to gaze back.


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