Review: The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
If this wonderfully well-made and witty novel doesn't win the Man Booker Prize, there is no justice in the world. But justice hasn't been rough on Alan Hollinghurst so far -- he has already won the Booker, in 2004 for The Line of Beauty.
The basic story here is simple: in the late summer of 1913, Cecil Valance, a toffee-nosed aristocratic poet, is on an extended visit to the middle-class home of the Sawle family.
This is Brideshead Revisited in reverse. In that groundbreaking novel, and, later, TV fantasy, viewers were carried up the English social ladder and what they saw at the top was Lord Sebastian Flyte and his spectacular palace. In this book, Cecil is the Flyte character and he goes down in the world -- where he grabs hold of anything he likes the look of, especially young George Sawle.
He is the stranger's child of the title, an aristocrat visiting a middle-class home and seducing the family.
Cecil's name is pronounced "Sizzle". Sizzling gay sex is his main pastime. But he's willing to spread himself around. In a rare break from doing heavy breathing exercises with George -- some of their panting is done in a pond -- Cecil makes a pass at George's 16-year-old sister, Daphne.
He also writes a poem that becomes famous, in part because it captures something essential of an Englishness that is soon to be lost, like himself, in World War One.
Hollinghurst devotes the first 100 pages to this episode. The Sawles, their servants, neighbours and guests are described in detail. So too is the Sawles' house: although their Middlesex villa is in the ha'penny place compared to Cecil's stately home, it's a cut above "Bungalow Bliss", and Hollinghurst gives it the full John Betjeman treatment.
Frankly, some of this domestic scene-setting threatens to become tedious -- there's just so much Carry-on Up the Class System that one can take.
But the reason for the detail soon becomes clear: everything that follows in the next 460 pages relates to what happened then.
And as new characters are introduced, in a series of episodes that concludes in the summer of 2008, the past recedes and becomes increasingly complicated, vaguer, harder to figure out.
The reader is tested by having to absorb the histories of the Valance and Sawle families, which are united in the person of Daphne.
She marries Cecil's brother Dudley, has three children, probably by separate fathers, gets divorced, marries twice more and dies at a great age. But the test is made harder because we learn all of this indirectly, through the eyes of people whose main interest is literary history: Cecil and his iconic poem continue to attract the attention of no less than three biographers, partly because of his Englishness, partly because of his gayness.
If Valance reminds the reader of Rupert Brooke, the reminder is deliberate: Hollinghurst evokes the world of Brooke and of the Bloomsbury set. And he does so through the depiction of the sort of people who have written about that world -- Michael Holroyd, the biographer of Lytton Strachey and George Bernard Shaw, comes to mind. This evocation is refreshingly ironic, even satirical, as is the comic nailing-down of what it's like to be a book reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement (of which Hollinghurst was once deputy editor).
But readers unfamiliar with the history of highbrow England in the 20th century will miss much of the mockery. There is also, particularly for Irish readers, the question of class. Even though reactions to the visit by Queen Elizabeth revealed how deeply interested we are in royalty, it is startling to realise that an observer as cold-headed as Hollinghurst seems to be impressed by bloodlines and the ownership of property.
The Stranger's Child is a state-of-England novel and it's the decay of its architecture that shows how badly off the nation is. As the houses decay, the people become ever more dingy. At the end of the book we're in a seedy shop in outer London with an even seedier literary detective buying sexually juicy copies of letters written by "Sizzle".
Hollinghurst has been accused of writing exclusively about men. He meets that accusation here by giving Daphne a central role. But the principal excitement in the book is still gayness. Its real hero is homosexuality, which is both transient and transgressive. By the end, however, some of the men have husbands, though whether marriage makes them any more attractive is debatable. This lack of niceness and kindness relates to the problem of the novel as a whole.
Next to nothing happens because of conflict between the characters. The result is a tragedy without a fault to explain it. The only real villain is the passage of time. In that sense, The Stranger's Child may come to be seen as flawed, a transient pleasure. By the standards of readability, though, it is constantly provocative, intricately plotted, slyly hilarious -- in short, a triumph of the storyteller's art.
Brian Lynch is a novelist, screenwriter and poet