Review: The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

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The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst book cover
The Stranger’s Child (2011) is an episodic exploration of memory and the distortion of history, both calculated and unintentional. Split into five sections, which span the 20th century and the start of the 21st, the novel traces the construction of young poet Cecil Valance’s reputation. In the first section Cecil visits Two Acres, the home of his Cambridge friend and lover, George Sawle. The Sawle family, and in particular George’s young sister Daphne, are enraptured by the effervescent, aristocratic Cecil. As a leaving present Cecil writes Daphne an ambiguous, subtly romantic poem – an ode to Two Acres and more. Long after Cecil’s death in the Great War, Churchill quotes a barbarised version of the poem in one of his speeches, ensuring Cecil’s place in the canon and the public’s conscience. Daphne provides the loose centre for the subsequent sections of the novel, as Cecil’s reputation is built and distorted by a string of memoirs and biographies, his life retold through increasingly removed filters and his essence slowly diluted.

Indeed, The Stranger’s Child is best read as a subtle meditation on memory and how, in combination with time and method, history is written and rewritten. More than Cecil’s personal legacy the novel considers the shaping of literary history; a mediocre poem embraced by a nation, its mythology created and slowly corrupted. Hollinghurst has always written about the nature of homosexuality, but although many of the male characters in The Stranger’s Child are homosexual this doesn’t drive the plot, instead Hollinghurst plays with the idea of homosexuality on the periphery of British life over the 20th Century – ever present, intertwined with all of society, but always just out of sight.

The writing is elegant but accessible, a great deal of effort clearly having been spent on the structure and composition of the novel. The leaps in both time and setting prove a little jarring at first, as new characters are presented without introduction and key moments in the lives of central characters left undescribed, but one quickly adapts to Hollinghurst’s uncondescending style. Indeed, for the discerning reader there are plenty of literary allusions within the text, although none are overstated. More than the structure, one finds the characters to be problematic; there is a hint of stereotype around some of the middle-upper class characters and, whether through the novel’s episodic nature or the personalities they are given, one finds it hard to empathise with any of the key characters. Polished as the prose is, it lacks the emotional intensity, the potency, that one expects, even from such a reserved work. However, Hollinghurst is keen to emphasise the cyclical nature of life and the lack of intensity may be a by-product of this, certainly no conclusions are provided, and the novel slips quietly away leaving, aptly, a sense of unfinished business.

In the past Hollinghurst has been criticised for failing to take an interest in his female characters, and becoming preoccupied with explicit sexual scenes: it would appear that many of these criticisms are addressed in The Stranger’s Child, with fewer and tamer sexual scenes, and female characters in more prominent roles. Not only that, but the novel feels warmer than his previous work, with no place for Hollinghurst’s own cutting observations. In some ways this detracts from the novel; one misses the arrogance and assertiveness that has been replaced by an, occasionally, impotent malaise. The concepts explored are interesting if not ground-breaking, and although The Stranger’s Child is far from incisive, it is worthy of deeper exploration.

The Stranger's Child is built around an interesting premise but the execution was a little off the mark for me. I found too many sections a little dry and enjoyed the book on an intellectual, rather than an emotional level.


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2 comments:

bibliofreak said...

For those that are interested, the novel’s title is taken from a line in Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H. :

And year by year the landscape grow
Familiar to the stranger's child;


(Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892), British poet. In Memoriam A. H. H. (Fr. CI, l. 19-20). . . Tennyson; a Selected Edition. Christopher Ricks, ed. (1989) University of California Press.)

Within the novel the stranger’s child refers, of course, to Cecil. (Feel free to disagree)

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