on 20 June 2016
“The Stranger’s Child“ is full of Hollinghurst trademarks but very different from his previous books. Here, the explicit yields to the implicit, the narrative provides only just enough clues, and the reader must settle for a more frustrating kind of satisfaction. The point of the book is the fleeting nature of memory and the past, but one is left with the impression that Hollinghurst has thrown up the chance of much interesting writing, perhaps even ducked out of the challenges he implies but fails to take up.
As in “The Folding Star“, Hollinghurst places a fictitious artist – in this case a poet – in an historical setting: indeed the book is framed by two scenes depicting Tennyson, whose presence is echoed at various key points in the narrative. History seems both to repeat itself and yet never really to go away, however elusive it proves to be in the reconstruction. The poet, one Cecil Valance, appears alive only in the first of five parts, set in 1913. After his death in „the War“ in 1916, we follow the fates of two families, his own aristocratic one and that of his middle-class friend George, as we are fast-forwarded to 1926, then 1967, 1980 and lastly the beginning of the current millennium. Cecil is however always present, both in conversation, preoccupation, and in the form of the (misleading) statue on his tomb. The constant reference to real events and historical persons is all of a piece with the quest to pin down the past and find out “what really happened” which drives the book forward.
Hollinghurst deploys his characteristically episodic narrative technique, in which story takes second place to set-pieces, which require the reader to deduce what must have happened in the intervening years. But here the technique works less well than in “A Line of Beauty”, because each set-piece, set years after the previous one, introduces a largely new set of characters, such that none are really developed into a convincing whole, not even those that recur. It is quite hard work keeping track of who is who, not least because nobody is particularly appealing. Moreover, some of the characters are not entirely consistent with themselves: both Paul and Rob are given quips which lie uneasily with the one’s haplessness and the other’s apparent superficiality, and Paul reappears as an effusive queen quite out of character with his bank-clerk beginnings.
On the other hand, the narrative is held together by recurring scenes and stereotypes: the depiction of Tennyson in part one is recalled in part four in the description of Cecil’s brother, Dudley Valance and again in the fleeting appearance of Dudley’s grandson Julian in part five, before Tennyson himself is given the floor as the book draws to a close. Similarly, Paul Bryant, Cecil’s would-be biographer, is repeatedly ferried around by car in part three; then in part four Paul himself hails and pays for a taxi for Cecil’s by now aged ex, Daphne; and in part five Daphne’s grand-daughter is also helped into a taxi by a younger man. Cecil’s mother is nicknamed “the General”; in one scene in part four a real general appears. This way of holding the novel together is also part of its message about the passage of time, inherited traits and chance resemblance.
In one respect, though, Hollinghurst’s narrative technique marks a departure. “The Swimming-Pool Library” and “The Folding Star” are both first-person narratives; “The Spell” is narrated in the third person; and “The Line of Beauty” is all but a first-person narrative: Nick is present throughout the novel, such that “he” could be replaced by “I” without any real change of perspective. In “The Stranger’s Child”, however, Hollinghurst narrates every chapter in the third person, but each time from the point of view of that chapter’s central character. It all feels rather experimental. At times the effect is jarring, as when the by-now familiar Paul is referred to by Rob (yet another late arrival in the novel) as “Bryant”: true, Paul is not familiar to Rob, but the reader is left wondering what it all adds up to. I am not convinced that an omniscient narrator would not do just as well. Perhaps the really daring thing would have been to have a different first-person for each chapter: just as with “The Line of Beauty”, I feel that is what is really happening.
Echoes of familiar Hollinghurst techniques include Dudley’s reference to his brother as “Sizzle”, recalling Justin’s name-games in “The Spell”, most notably “Sissy” for Sicily: but I missed the camp fun of the earlier novel. Dudley’s second wife, Linette, recalls Sir Maurice Tipper’s ghastly Tory wife in “The Line of Beauty”, whilst Dudley’s appearance amidst adulation at an Oxford gathering in advanced old age is a re-working of Margaret Thatcher’s attendance at Gerald’s birthday party. But each time I felt the echo was just that, a faint repetition of what Hollinghurst has already done better elsewhere. This is even true of the characteristic final come-uppance, so devastatingly applied to the narrators of “A Swimming-Pool Library” and “The Folding Star”: here Jennifer’s late revelation about Paul Bryant is something of a come-down by comparison.
More generally, Hollinghurst successfully applies the technique pioneered in “The Swimming-Pool Library”, of contrasting prose styles: in the earlier book the narrative prose was consistently distinguished from Lord Nantwich’s journal; here, the main narrative is interspersed with letters, excerpts from Dudley’s and Daphne’s biographies, and passages of Paul’s diary, all recognisably and interestingly different from each other. Indeed it is in his use of English that Hollinghurst’s talents are as fulsome as ever. Some sentences are short but most are long and painstakingly built: we get the Russian doll – a main clause containing a subordinate containing a second subordinate - alongside a sentence twice as long with not a single main verb, in which everything hangs on a series of word-repetitions and at times unusual participles: “It seemed to Rob a bit rum that a man who could unlock a strong-room had to take a hacksaw to a book”, with its dactylic rhythms, is followed by the verbless sentence: “A handsome book, too, the inner border of the binding tooled in gold, thick gold on the page-edges, the endpapers with gold-seamed crimson marbling, bound by Webster’s, ‘By Appointment to Queen Alexandra’.”
Clearly Hollinghurst is trying out something new here. His use of the implicit, rather sparing elsewhere and most striking at the end of “A Folding Star” in the oblique revelation of Luc’s fate, is here very much to the fore. Where sexual encounters were once richly described, here we have only Cecil’s excessively large gratuities to tell us that he must repeatedly have taken advantage of Jonah the valet. What was once a full-scale discovery in flagrante delicto in “A Swimming-Pool Library” becomes a black-and-white photograph of Cecil and George semi-clad taken by an anonymous onlooker, most probably Hubert, amply supplied with overgenerous presents by an older man to whom Cecil, we learn in the last few pages, sent overtly homosexual verse, though even this is implied, not stated. It is in this sense that Hollinghurst has not written the book he might have done: descriptive skills so originally and vividly deployed elsewhere are here held in check. The point may well be that it took the one hundred years of the twentieth century for all this to “come out”. But my frustration with the novel runs deeper: just as so many scenes are hinted at but not described, so we are denied more than a tantalising glimpse of the poetry that is the one lasting trace of the irrecoverable Cecil. I wonder whether, in allowing the verses of this “second rate poet” to burn in the concluding bonfire, Hollinghurst is telling us that there are some things he feels incapable of attempting.