FICTION: The Stranger's Child, By Alan Hollinghurst, Picador, 564pp. £20
AN INVARIABLE characteristic of the English novel is that if the opening scenes take place at a gathering of the upper classes in the early years of the 20th century, then the reader will be introduced to a number of dazzling, determined boys whose talents will be extinguished by the Great War. Alan Hollinghurst's fifth novel, his first since The Line of Beauty, which won the Booker Prize in 2004, does not betray that tradition, opening in 1913, when a group of young men, fresh from adolescence, are planning their futures with little idea how the fields of northern France will soon lay claim to their ambitions.
The Stranger’s Child explores the lives of two families, the Sawles and the Valances, over seven decades, through marriage, love affairs, literary heritage and death. It’s a curious novel, experimental in its use of time, relaxed in its narrative pacing, populated by characters whose remote airs make them typical of their class and time but often unengaging as fictional entities.
The opening section centres on the Sawles – widowed mother Freda and siblings Hubert, George and Daphne – as they greet George’s aristocratic school friend Cecil Valance, who has come for the weekend. Publicly, he will read selections from his poetry; privately, he will flirt with 16-year-old Daphne; discreetly, he will have sex as often as possible with George, who is so desperately in love that he cannot bear to be parted from his idol, not even for the short walk from lake to house.
The events of the war are skipped over, but its chaos is not; by the second section Cecil is dead, but his memory is fiercely guarded by his mother, who has commissioned a biography and a collected poems, which will feature his most famous work, Two Acres, supposedly composed for Daphne at the end of that momentous weekend.
The novel is built around the notion that Cecil, in his short life, has had an unremitting effect on those who knew him. His ghost lingers on every page; decades later, scenes take place around his tomb in the Valances’ ancestral home of Corley Court, now a school.
This proves problematic, as there is little to suggest that his memory is worth preserving. His poems are frequently dismissed. Critics refer to him as a very minor poet. His younger brother, the monstrous Dudley, says that his best-known work is entirely over-rated. Even George, who can barely contain his lust in the opening chapters, admits by the second section that he almost never thinks about him any more.
For Cecil is no Sebastian Flyte and Corley Court is no Brideshead. His words and actions do not fly off the page, making the reader fall a little in love with him too. Instead he arrives with a sense of entitlement and arrogance, seducing his lover’s sister, overtipping the servants, making him a figure of interest but hardly one to build a century’s worth of literary criticism around. And yet the biographer Stokes and, decades later, a second biographer, Paul Bryant, are absorbed by him. One wonders why.
A third section, exploring Paul’s first attempt at a sexual relationship with a man, distracts the reader from the main action of the book, but it’s a welcome diversion. This most sympathetic character offers a reminder of Hollinghurst’s earlier novels, where the tensions and anxieties of first love are explored with tenderness and sensitivity. The relationship between the two, an extrovert and an introvert, recalls the earlier affair between Cecil and George, only it takes place in 1967, when attitudes towards homosexuality are changing and the Sexual Offences Act, drawn up to decriminalise such behaviour, is passing through the Commons. One rather misses this part of the story when it is discarded, purposefully unresolved, and the action returns to the ageing Daphne.
Hollinghurst excels at portraying the tragedy of homosexuals who marry out of fear of exposure, although their excessive number perhaps makes the point redundant. Almost all the male characters are either explicitly gay or closeted. Even the most minor character, a houseboy named Jonah, whose stomach turns somersaults when he’s given an opportunity to fold Cecil’s undergarments, is revisited in old age, where he is taken care of by his offspring. The heterosexuals don’t have a much better time of it; Daphne marries on three occasions and each husband is a disappointment to her. In fact the most stable relationship in the book is between the historians George and Madeleine, who seem affectionate towards each other, utterly companionable, even producing a successful book of popular history. Except George, of course, is a repressed homosexual too.
Hollinghurst writes with precision, elegance and compassion, but, for this reader, the beauty of the language is often let down by the plot's failure to engage. The Stranger's Childis a complex and difficult book, one that offers as many rewards as frustrations. Its originality of purpose should be applauded: Hollinghurst has too much class to simply cash in on his Booker success; instead, he has written something that, like the work of his central character, may need to be re-examined over long periods of time to be fully appreciated.
John Boyne's most recent novel, The Absolutist, is published by Doubleday
Alan Hollinghurst reads at the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, on July 13th, 6.30pm. Bookings on 01-2760059, firstname.lastname@example.org