The Stranger’s Child
Hardback, Picador, ISBN 978-0-330-483247
The Stranger’s Child begins on the eve of the First World War with the poet Cecil Valance’s visit to Two Acres, the house of his Cambridge friend George Sawle. Hollinghurst’s opening is typical of his fascination with the dynamics of domestic settings, and the turbulent effects that strangers have upon them. The first two parts revolve around two such meetings: at Two Acres (of which Cecil writes a poem), and at Corley Court where he is laid to rest under a marble statue. These two parts create a hagiography of Cecil, as fallen war poet – an aristocratic Rupert Brooke – which Hollinghurst at first propounds and then questions.
The novel is structured around five distinct periods of twentieth-century Britain, which form vignettes of the Valance and Sawle families’ from the War to the present day. Hollinghurst shows unmatched skill in subtly evoking the locations of these episodes, from country houses, to suburban homes and decrepit bungalows. The penumbral events outside these junctures are left untold, leaving the reader to constantly make linkages between present and past.
Allusions abound without appearing overwrought, the way they sometimes can in some of Hollinghurst’s earlier work, such as The Folding Star. Inspiration is drawn from the English prose active in the novel’s spots of time: the society soirées of late James; the country house, boarding school and strained marital lives of A Handful of Dust and Decline and Fall; and the lodging-house humor of Lucky Jim. But the novel is also saturated with verse: There is Cecil’s paean to olde England ‘Two Acres’, the novel’s title, taken from Tennyson’s In Memoriam which also provides the plot with reminiscences of Arthur Hallam, and the presence of Eliot beneath all this. Although never directly addressed, Eliot is surely the American ‘writing at this moment’ whom Sebby Stokes confesses is he doesn’t ‘fully understand’. It would seem more than a coincidence that as allusive a writer as Hollinghurst would place Corley Court between Bampton and Brize Norton, some twenty miles from Burnt Norton, where Eliot explored the very same themes of memory and the lost opportunities of the past.
Although the literary style is classic Hollinghurst, thematically and structurally The Stranger’s Child is a departure from previous work. The graphic scenes of homosexual sex which made Hollinghurst a tabloid bête noire, are almost non-existent; perhaps teasing reader expectations, love scenes appear prudish. That is not to say it lacks amorous interest, The Stranger’s Child is a nuanced study in both homosexual and heterosexual relationships, whose power struggles are revealed with a delicate poise.
The second half of the work continues Hollinghurst’s movement into new ground. It forms a dismantling of the myths surrounding the Sawle and Valance families developed up to this point; some three hundred pages which are, for want of a better word, postmodern. Although postmodern is a term I can imagine the author hating, the copious quotation and extraction from fictional biographies, the presence of a country house novel within a country house novel, and Daphne’s auto-biographies which contain none of her life, creates a polyphonic and intentionally self-conflicted text. This mass of material leads the biographer and protagonist of the second half, Paul Bryant, to the understatement that, ‘I hope you won’t mind me saying but I find your family a bit complicated to work out’.
Questions of testimony, paternity and misreading, all serve as a ‘a reminder of the biographer’s difficult existence’, which in its futility is often comic. When Bryant falls prey to a prank, which he had already heard recounted in his subject’s autobiography, the reader’s sympathy is tempered by dark humour. This playful interweaving is enjoyable, but, and this is my only criticism, perhaps goes on a dozen or so pages too long. The final section in which manuscript is burnt, seemed forced, even hackneyed, when a more fitting conclusion appears a chapter earlier after the line ‘the rest is biography’.
At the level of the sentence, I personally think Hollinghurst has been the best writer in English for the last twenty years. Beyond prose style, within the text as a whole, The Stranger’s Child is as near-perfect as a novel can be on first reading. Its structural complexity and nuanced portrayal of changing relationships in a changing Britain, means the highest accolades formerly reserved for Hollinghurst’s language, can now also be placed on the work in its entirety.