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Reviews of The New Life by Tom Crewe

The New Life

A Novel

by Tom Crewe

The New Life by Tom Crewe X
The New Life by Tom Crewe
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jan 2023, 400 pages

    Jan 2024, 416 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Maria Katsulos
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About this Book

Book Summary

A brilliant and captivating debut, in the tradition of Alan Hollinghurst and Colm Tóibín, about two marriages, two forbidden love affairs, and the passionate search for social and sexual freedom in late 19th-century London.

In this powerful, visceral novel about love, sex, and the struggle for a better world, two men collaborate on a book in defense of homosexuality, then a crime—risking their old lives in the process.

In the summer of 1894, John Addington and Henry Ellis begin writing a book arguing that what they call "inversion," or homosexuality, is a natural, harmless variation of human sexuality. Though they have never met, John and Henry both live in London with their wives, Catherine and Edith, and in each marriage there is a third party: John has a lover, a working class man named Frank, and Edith spends almost as much time with her friend Angelica as she does with Henry. John and Catherine have three grown daughters and a long, settled marriage, over the course of which Catherine has tried to accept her husband's sexuality and her own role in life; Henry and Edith's marriage is intended to be a revolution in itself, an intellectual partnership that dismantles the traditional understanding of what matrimony means.

Shortly before the book is to be published, Oscar Wilde is arrested. John and Henry must decide whether to go on, risking social ostracism and imprisonment, or to give up the project for their own safety and the safety of the people they love. Is this the right moment to advance their cause? Is publishing bravery or foolishness? And what price is too high to pay for a new way of living?

A richly detailed, insightful, and dramatic debut novel, The New Life is an unforgettable portrait of two men, a city, and a generation discovering the nature and limits of personal freedom as the 20th century comes into view.

Chapter 1

HE WAS CLOSE ENOUGH to smell the hairs on the back of the man's neck. They almost tickled him, and he tried to rear his head, but found that he was wedged too tightly. There were too many bodies pressed heavily around him; he was slotted into a pattern of hats, shoulders, elbows, knees, feet. He could not move his head even an inch. His gaze had been slotted too, broken off at the edges: he could see nothing but the back of this man's head, the white margin of his collar, the span of his shoulders. He was close enough to smell the pomade, streaks of it shining dully at the man's nape; clingings of eau de cologne, a tang of salt. The suit the man was wearing was blue-and-gray check. The white collar bit slightly into his skin, fringed by small whitish hairs. His ears were pink where they curved at the top. His hat—John could see barely higher than the brim—was dark brown, with a band in a lighter shade. His hair was brown too, darker where the pomade was daubed. ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. On page 85, the reader learns of Henry's "peculiarity" and the shame he's felt about it for his entire life. This "peculiarity" allows him to sympathize with "inverts" and their oppression. Discuss how narrow the definition for "normal" really is. How many people fall outside of that category? How have the confines for normal broadened or narrowed since Henry and John's day?
  2. A recurring fear of both John and Henry is that John's "inversion" will be discovered, discrediting their book. Why is it that we don't trust the subjects of debate to have a credible perspective? What are some examples of conversations where the people most affected by the decision are left out of the process?
  3. At the beginning of chapter 11, John recalls the events...
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BookBrowse Review


The protagonists of The New Life are based on two real-life figures — John Addington Symond and Havelock Ellis — who co-wrote a historical-scientific text called Sexual Inversion, just like in the novel. However, as Crewe mentions in his afterword, he fictionalized these figures through his characterization of their interactions. In reality, the two never met, communicating exclusively through mail, and Symond died before the book was published, whereas in The New Life, John Addington is very able to fight back against the injustice of his work being censored. The characters of The New Life are all painfully real — they make selfish, rash choices, regardless of how their decisions may hurt those who love them. Despite those more negative qualities, many of them are fiercely lovable, and both their unrealized blunders and conscious actions may make readers grip the pages with fear and frustration...continued

Full Review Members Only (931 words)

(Reviewed by Maria Katsulos).

Media Reviews

The Boston Globe
A literary debut that's nothing less than remarkable… Crewe's writing is subtly intricate, gorgeous, though never precious or showy' at times, it calls to mind the best of Thomas Hardy, but with necessarily modern sensibilities… This is a beautiful, brave book that reminds us of the terrible human cost of bigotry; this is a novel against forgetting.

The New York Times
Intricate and finely crafted… [Crewe] attentively constructs rich, human motivations and contradictions for his fictionalized renderings of John and Henry… The New Life brims with intelligence and insight, impressed with all the texture (and fog) of fin de siècle London.

The New York Times Book Review (editor's choice)
This debut novel reimagines the real-life efforts of two researchers who advocated for acceptance of homosexuality in the 1800s, decades before the gay rights movement. In exploring their story, Crewe asks: What's worth jeopardizing in the name of progress?

The Washington Post
The spirit of Forster broods over Tom Crewe's lyrical, piercing debut, The New Life, which lends a contemporary urgency to an exploration of same-sex intimacy and social opprobrium… The New Life is a fine-cut gem, its sentences buffed to a gleam, but with troubling implications for our own reactionary era.

The New Yorker
In The New Life, Crewe distinguishes himself both as novelist and as historian... He has, more unusually, found a prose that can accommodate everything from the lofty to the romantic and the shamelessly sexy.

The Guardian (UK)
One of the most embodied historical novels I have read... Crewe's brilliance – in addition to his ability to make us feel the physical sensations – is in dramatising moral dilemmas with complexity and rigour... Lives and experience demand richer forms of storytelling, and this is just what Crewe has given us.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
The novel's plot is loosely based on the lives of two pioneering researchers on homosexuality: John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis...[b]ut...equally inspired by works by Alan Hollinghurst like The Stranger's Child (2011), models for British fiction about gay men that's intellectual, erotic, and wise to the nuances of the British class ladder. Crewe has his own rich and engrossing style, though...blending the graceful ambiguity of literary fiction with the deftness of a page-turner. A smart, sensual debut.

Publishers Weekly
[An] auspicious debut... Crewe uses meticulously researched period details to great effect, and rounds out the narrative with solid characters and tight pacing. Readers will look forward to seeing what this talented author does next.

Author Blurb Anne Enright, author of Actress and The Green Road
Electrifying. Tom Crewe's forensic love of the physical puts the body back into history and makes the past a living, changing place.

Author Blurb Colm Tóibín, author of Brooklyn and The Magician
The New Life is filled with nuance and tenderness, steeped in the atmosphere of late nineteenth century London, a world on the brink of social and sexual change. Tom Crewe's brilliant novel dramatizes the relationship between the visionary and the brave, charting the lives of men and women who inspired not only political progress but an entire new way of living and loving.

Author Blurb Kate Atkinson, author of Life after Life and Shrines of Gaiety
A very fine new writer.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

The Life, Work and Trial of Oscar Wilde

Photographic portrait of Oscar Wilde, sitting in chair dressed in suit and coat with fur collar Born in 1854 Dublin to a pair of writers — a father who was a well-known surgeon but also published works on architecture and Irish folklore, and a mother who wrote poetry under a pseudonym — Oscar Wilde went on to himself become an acclaimed poet, playwright and novelist, though his tragic fate overshadowed his literary and artistic success for decades. His most famous works include the poems "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" and "The Sphinx"; the plays The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere's Fan; and a singular novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Today, Wilde is acknowledged as a queer icon, and valorized by students of British (and more specifically, Irish) literature, and the global LGBTQ+ community.

Wilde ...

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