The Stranger's Child
by Alan Hollinghurst
This was my first experience of Hollinghurst having missed the boat slightly with The Line Of Beauty and then been driven further and further away from reading it by all the coverage and plaudits it received and the TV adaptation that followed. There comes a point where you feel that there's little to be gained from actually reading a book you don't have that much interest in anyway. So I wasn't one of the legions of readers who have been eagerly awaiting his latest novel but it did mean that I approached it with a certain freshness and only the vaguest of ideas of what to expect (those hunches turned out to be about right: bit posh, bit gay, bit long).
This large novel (560 pages) follows the trajectories of two families, The Sawles and the Valances, through the twentieth century. Linking them is a late summer weekend in 1913 when Cecil Valance, an aristocratic poet, comes to visit 'Two Acres', the grand suburban home in Stanmore Hill of his Cambridge chum George Sawle. Chum maybe isn't the right word, for Cecil and Valance share what might be delicately termed a close friendship. George is in fact quite in thrall to his friend 'Cess' and their stolen moments of passion inject energy if not actual descriptions of sex into this opening section. It isn't just George for whom this will be significant weekend however. In fact it is his sister Daphne who has her head and heart turned and the course of her life altered. She is the character who will endure throughout the novel, and whose fortunes we will watch alter.
Hollinghurst's descriptions of the bustling household are wonderfully observed. Staff prepare rooms whilst discussing the 'nocturnal missions' (the preferred terminology for a wet-dream) that require them to change the bedsheets of the young gentlemen more frequently than they might like. For new boy Jonah in particular, asked to act as Cecil's valet for the weekend, the mere unpacking of a suitcase is a project fraught with the danger of not observing the right protocol. We hear Cecil's laugh downstairs 'like a dog shut in a room', there is always a sense that things are happening in every room and out in the grounds too. There is plenty of conversation too of course, particularly about the approaching hostilities, with Cecil's innate confidence helping him to strike a heroic pose in contrast to his friend's uncertainty.
Cecil seemed ready to fight at once - he said he would jump at the chance. It was touching to, and slightly comical, to see George's indecision. Anyone less inclined to fight it would be hard to imagine, but he was clearly reluctant to disappoint Cecil. 'I suppose I would, would I? - if it came to it,' he said.
But as I said before it is Daphne's encounter with Cecil that provides the novel with its 'Atonement' moment, a clumsy kiss, and the poem written by him apparently for her that gives the novel its title.
With each retelling, the story, with its kernel of scandal, made her heart race a fraction less, and its imagined impact on George, or her mother, or Olive Watkins, their fury and bewilderment, grew stronger in compensation. Daphne felt the warm flood of the story surge through her and grip her whole person; but each time the wave seemed a little weaker than the time before, and her reasonable relief at this gradual change was coloured with a tinge of indignation.This is the beginning of the novel's major theme of artistic legacy, how the retelling, reimagining, reinterpreting of events and of those few lines, 'the minutely staggered and then the breathtaking merging of word, image and fact' can alter their very meaning over the proceeding years. Cecil's poem captures an idyllic vision of England just before The Great War destroys a generation and with the death of Cecil himself thanks to a sniper's bullet a 'very minor poet' is elevated to the status of icon. But before future generations pore over the meaning of that poem there are the personal recollections of those who knew him. George's encounter when visiting Cecil's tomb in the family chapel is quite brilliantly realised, first in highlighting the falsity of trying to render an accurate likeness, then in describing the assault of remembrance.
Cecil had been much photographed, and doubtless much described; he was someone who commanded description, which was a rareish thing, most people going on for years on end with not a word as to what they looked like. And yet all these depictions were in a sense failures, just as this resplendent effigy was...
...He had others, more magical and private, images less seen than felt, memories kept by his hands, the heat of Cecil, the hair raising beauty of his skin, of his warm waist under his shirt, and the trail of rough curls leading down from his waist. George's praying fingers spread in a tentative caress of recollection.That scene comes in the second section where the action has leapt forward several years. The prose may move at a stately pace but the jumps in time that come with each new section might not be to all tastes. There is something quite unsettling and even upsetting about getting interested in a setup or its characters only to turn the page and find an entirely new one. For example in part two we suddenly find Daphne married to Cecil's 'frightful shit' of a brother, Dudley (in whose talk 'candour marched so closely with satire that the uninitiated could often only stare and laugh uncertainly at his pronouncements') and in the next section find that she has had yet another disastrous marriage. But by focusing on these moments in time Hollinghurst can cover a far greater period and pursue his real interest which seems to be in literary interpretation and criticism, the creation of myth both literary and personal.
Cecil's poem may have been written in Daphne's little album but we will discover that it was really intended for her brother George and that there may have been a far more graphic version hidden in notes. An official biography comes from Sebby Stokes but the literary detective work comes from Paul Bryant who begins life as a clerk in a bank (through whose manager he is able to meet the now 69 year old Daphne) but goes on to work for the TLS (as did Hollinghurst). The second half of the novel charts his shift into life as a literary biographer whilst also covering a period where biography itself shifted - 'Was the era of hearsay about to give way to an age of documentation?' For Paul this is about discovering the truth behind the famous poem and even better shrouded secrets within both families. For the ageing Daphne, who has already written her own book about her life (reviewed more sympathetically by Paul than most other reviewers who questioned the book's veracity) he just seems to be after 'smut' quite apart from the fact that 'He was asking for memories, too young himself to know that memories were only memories of memories.' The guarded exchanges between these two (and also a touching interview with Jonah, remember him?) provide the more interesting moments in a second half that delivered slightly diminishing returns for me.
I did struggle with this one, you see. Part of the reason for finishing it was to prove that I actually could after giving up on a few books recently, and part was to give an author I hadn't read previously a fair crack of the whip. Coming back to the book to copy out some quotes and reading around those a little made me realise what a fine crafter of a sentence Hollinghurst is. The writing is undeniably good, and whatever you might feel about the novel's structure there is no doubting the ambition and scope. But I did find it slow and arduous at times, no doubt heightened by only being able to read it in snatches. And as much as I could appreciate the themes that Hollingurst develops through the book I couldn't help but want to go back to the idyll at the novel's beginning, where the characters were more vivid, the dialogue punchier and all those passions a little closer to the surface. There is already plenty of talk about this being a dead cert for the Booker which would be remarkable enough given that Hollinghurst has won it previously (and for his previous novel at that) even if it weren't for the fact that some already feel that it isn't even his best book. As I just said, I haven't read any of Hollinghurst's other books but I feel that I have already read better books this year that deal with the same themes of noble entitlement, death and remembrance.