Hollinghurst often reminds me of E.M.Forster with his nostalgia for the early C20 and his focus on the minute details of people's thoughts, observations of one another and interrelationships, all presented in well-crafted prose (apart from the odd clunky phrase like "she said carryingly").
Charismatic, arrogant and manipulative, the aristocratic Cecil Valance achieves a possibly undeserved popularity as a poet after his early death in the First World War. Can the truth of his life ever be told by biographers? This seems unlikely since even those who claim to know him have very different perceptions. In five separate sections separated by gaps of several years or even decades, the author aims to show the false nature of memory.
You could argue that Hollinghurst is daring in discarding many of the "conventions" of novel-writing. The development of a strong plot is given second place to what often reads like a series of short stories: portrayals of characters who make only brief appearances, or the description of quite minor incidents, evocative of past generations, but very amusing, ludicrous or in the style of a black comedy. The author tends to build up anticipation of a certain outcome, only for it not to occur, insofar as one can judge! Significant events are frequently no more than implied.
Although this book promises much, my growing suspicion that it would not deliver proved justified. It suffers from being too long, repetitive in its limited revelations and self-indulgent, not least in its campness - I grew tired of "blushing" and "giggling" men of all ages.
It does not bother me that most of the characters are very middle class , but there are certainly too many of them to relate to easily, and I was left feeling I had waded through an Oxford don's overblown soap opera fantasy.
I know that "the stranger's child" is a quotation from Tennyson's "In Memoriam" read aloud by Cecil in Part 1, and thanks to Roderick Blythe for explaining to me in the comment below its meaning in the title.
I read The Stranger's Child with some trepidation having not greatly enjoyed Line Of Beauty. I had pigeon holed Alan Hollinghurst as a pompous man who was obsessed by the class system, big houses, Oxbridge and gay sex. After reading the first part of The Stranger's Child, I was reassured to see that my prejudices were well founded. A book I could truly loathe.
But as the novel wore on, something quite subtle happened. It became more and more engrossing - the gradual layering of history; the changing perceptions over time. Cecil the dandy of Part One became a hero, and then a cult and finally a distant and second hand memory. His light burned brightly for a while, but he slipped back to the marginalia of literature.
Hollinghurst's technique is to report very few events in real time. He narrates through set piece parties, gatherings, weekends when conversation turns to past events. This can be frustrating at first (and I don't think it ever stopped being frustrating in Line of Beauty) but it is used to very good effect in The Stranger's Child - allowing different perspectives and allowing changes in perception or opinion over time. This was echoed in Cecil's most famous poem, Two Acres, and his letters - being controlled, edited and drip fed by those holding the documents to amend public perception of the man. By the end, the real Cecil was irrelevant - people each had their own personal agenda to pursue and the memory of the man was manipulated to those ends.
The writing, whilst well done, is not particularly flowery or pompous. The pomposity of the opening sections mellows and by the end, one is prepared to accept that it derives from the characters and situations rather than the author. And the characters do feel real; even the women (perhaps especially the women) feel real in contrast to the rather wooden women of Line of Beauty. There is a challenge each time the timeframe shifts in working out who is who and what has happened. It is not even immediately clear how far time has shifted - the reader is left to puzzle it all out. The first time this happened, as Part 1 moved into Part 2, it was disconcerting. By the end it was exhilarating. After Part 5, there was a pang of loss as there was no Part 6.
If there was one reservation with the novel, it is that it left the reason for the falling fortunes of the Valances unexplained. The reader is simply expected to take it as fact. But it wasn't a novel about the Valances as real people so much as a novel about reputations and relationships.
I hoped to hate the book - I'm glad to have loved it.
on 28 January 2012
I started this book full of hope. I adored The Line of Beauty - and the first chapter of The Stranger's Child drew me in so completely I immediately put the book down as i didn't want to finish it too soon! The characters pre WW1 were so engaging and the elegance and wonderful descriptions were what I expected after LOB. I was glad to see such strong female characters here and i know that had been a criticism in the past - in fact they stood head and shoulders above all the men. Alan Hollinghurst is obsessed with class but that is okay as so are most of we, the subtle tell tale signs which give the imposters away are so well described - as are all the socially awkward situations as we expect. The only question I would have is does Mr H really think every man has had/would have a gay experience? or is it an aristocracy thing? This aspect made it seem unlikely as I cant recall one male in the book where at least a liaison was suggested. However I was dying to see how the secret which had been believed destroyed for so long would emerge - but it didn't emerge and the end of the book was the biggest let down ever - I felt like it just trailed off. I actually started thinking I must have skipped a chapter but no - perhaps it leaves it open for a sequel but I wont be buying in hard back next time. Whilst I am still thinking about the characters in the earlier chapters, the later ones were less charming. I still love the wonderful writing - but after such a wait for this - I was a little annoyed by the last page - I was robbed!
Where do I start with reviewing probably the favourite for the Booker prize 2011? Critics, reviewers and readers have all been waiting (so we are told) with baited breath for Hollinghurst to send forth his first novel since the Booker prize winning novel of 2004 The Line of Beauty. So...... does it deserve the critics praise which it has certainly been given since publication or is this a case of no one wanting to look ignorant or stand out and say actually it's not that great!
The book is broken down into five sections. In the first we meet the man whose legacy will impact upon the rest of the novel. Cecil Valance is a poet who if he'd lived long enough would have disappeared into probable obscurity, however his early death creates a legend whose name is forever to be linked with Rupert Brooke and a generation of young men who died in the First World War. We see Valance through the eyes of his young lover George Sawles and more importantly George's younger sister Daphne who creates the link with Cecil and the remainder of the novel. Whilst visiting their family home Two Acres, Valance writes a poem which will ensure his fame and notoriety. Churchill will go on to quote it and questions will be raised as to who the poem was meant for (is it George or Daphne who is at the heart of the verse).
The remaining four sections deals with the subsequent generations of the Valance/Sawles and how their lives have altered throughout the course of the 20th century but are still linked to a long dead poet.
The critics have said that with this novel Hollinghurst has addressed issues surrounding the lack of emotional depth to his characters and there is a beauty and fragility to his writing. I've got to admit that I found his characters shallow, uninteresting and pastiches of other characters in literature. The idea that this is a nostalgic novel which deals primarily with remembrance of the past and its ideas (especially literary memory) just doesn't work for me. Hollinghurst has produced a stereotypical view upper/middle class England which for me has no sense of reality or truth to it (in fact I often felt I was reading an Agatha Christie novel but at least with Christie you get a plot and of course a murder!). You get no real emotional attachment to any of the characters, they have no body or life in them, and I find it implausible the notion that over passing decades Valance's work would have been decried by successive academics/critics (seeing that the plot works on the notion of him to have been a mediocre writer). Hollinghurst seems wrapped up in the idea that people are obsessed with the notion of sexuality and even at the end of the novel which is set in 2008 that one really cares as to whether or not Valance was gay. I've got to admit at this point I just wanted it to end.
So maybe I am ignorant, maybe I am not capable of seeing the multilayered plot and the literary references which run throughout this novel. But I do know when I love something and I certainly didn't love this novel at all.
on 20 November 2011
Before I go into what I hope will be a fair critique of `The Strangers Child' I should really discuss the premise of it. The novel is really a tale of people of years and years, the novel itself is told in five sections each relating to a different decade. The two main characters, well I thought they were the main force of the story though others may disagree, Cecil Valance and Daphne Sawle meet, along with Daphne's brother George who is equally smitten with Cecil (this made me think of `Brideshead Revisited' though apparently that's not something you should say to Mr Hollinghurst, oops, but it does give the book a slight feel of `oh haven't I been here before?') and really we follow their lives from their first meeting and join them at various points in time as the book progresses.
As much as I am being vague to not give any spoilers away, I was also slightly at a loss as to why we meet these characters when we do, and why they tend to wander off. Yes, that's real life... well possibly real life if you are very rich and can spend life being unlikeable yet fabulous. These points in time, to me, didn't seem pivotal, and I couldn't get a hold on them. I didn't mind the fact they were all rather unlikeable but as the novel progressed I just kept thinking `where is this going, and do I care?' Some will say the rather random way in which the book is written is one of the cleverest points of the novel, really? I don't expect my books linear at all, yet I sometimes wonder if `clever' (which is the word I have seen in many reviews) is a good way of describing `we don't get it and so it must be the authors intention to be a little unconventional, it's the art of the book... how clever'. Hmmmm.
I can say the writing is utterly stunning, yet `stunning', `beautiful', `elegant', `effortless' (as the reviews keep on saying) prose can only go a certain way and I honestly feel in the middle of the book it became all about the prose and it simply didn't stop. The beautiful prose started to drag and the effect of it started to sag and I thought `I'm not going to finish this'. Yet I did and as the last third starts the book indeed picks up again. The random plot threads make a little more sense, then they don't and tantalise and then they sort of do.The characters stay being dislikeable yet readable and I liked the way it ended. Yes the way it ended, not the fact it ended.
This of course has left me very torn. There is no doubt that `The Strangers Child' contains some utterly gorgeous prose, no question of that at all. I just wish there had been a much tighter edit on the book as with about 200 pages taken out of it, or several thousand of those wonderfully worded words, this book would have become a possible favourite of mine, I do love an epic after all. Instead I became rather bored, if somewhat beautifully.
I haven't read any of Alan Hollinghurst's previous work, but I'm impressed by this one. What follows are notes on aspects of it that I found interesting;
TITLE: The stranger's child is Cecil Valance, who comes in 1913 as a visitor to Two Acres, home of the widowed Freda Sawle and her three children. The middle child, George, brings Cecil from Cambridge, where the two are members of the Apostles, an intellectual club-cum-debating society with a strong homosexual component to its membership. Cecil's family is from a higher social class -- his home Corley Court is quite grand in Victorian Gothic manner -- and he is a budding poet who, while at Two Acres, writes a poem in the autograph book of Daphne Sawle that becomes a "classic" of pre- WW1 England in something of the manner of Rupert Brooke's "If I should die . . ." (Brooke is mentioned, as is Lytton Strachey, as Apostles known, though not well, to Cecil and George). But Cecil is the stranger's child in another sense -- after his death in battle in 1916, and after his poems become better known, he becomes in effect the child of strangers, people in later generations who for aesthetic, economic, and sexual reasons are fascinated by his story. The final section of the book, set early in the 21st Century, shows him still an object of fascination. He is, however, never pinned down; he remains a mystery to the end. In the opening section -- the only one in which he is alive -- we are given no access to his inner life. All we know of him we have to infer from the reactions of the Sawle household. "The stranger's child" is also a phrase from Tennyson's "In Memoriam" (T. had also been an "Apostle"), and the section of the poem in which it appears is read by Cecil in the first section of the book. It's no accident that it is by far more powerful and moving than anything that Cecil manages in the way of poetry, and it foreshadows the fate of Two Acres and of Cecil himself.
GENRE: The default mode of the novel, so to speak, is comedy of manners, and this is a considerable feat, for Hollinghurst has to manage a variety of modes here, since the manners of pre WW1 England are not the manners of 1926, 1967, the 1980's etc. One of the unobtrusive triumphs of the novel is the way in which Hollinghurst brings these different periods and milieux convincingly to life. What's common to all is the presence of characters who find themselves in social situations that they are unable to "read" with confidence. It's going too far to call these characters unknowing, but they are limited and are aware that they are. Both Daphne and Freda Sawle are such characters, and so is Paul Bryant who finds himself uneasy in a number of situations that his background has left him unprepared for. There's a lot of humor at the expense of such characters in the novel. But if the default mode is "comedy of manners," there are undercurrents of poignancy and pathos that engage us, in something of the way that such moments do in Austen's "Persuasion," although the plots and scopes of the novels are not at all alike. We never see WW1 directly, but we see the damage that it inflicted on survivors -- Dudley Valance, Cecil's brother is psychologically disturbed, and his marriage to Daphne (who had thought herself beloved of Cecil) ends early. Freda Sawle, in one of the book's most poignant moments, recalls at a distance of ten years getting the message of the death of her oldest child, Hubert; and Hubert figures again near the book's end when we are given access to some letters from the front written by him to an older male neighbour who was in love with him.
SEXUALITY: Most of the male characters are either homosexual or interested in both sexes. Some are comfortable with their sexuality; others are less so. Hubert Sawle is aware of his neighbour's infatuation, but it makes him uneasy. He is not presented as robustly heterosexual. Revel Ralph, Daphne's second husband, is clearly and apparently comfortably attracted to both men and women. Paul Bryant is homosexual, and his discomforts are social and intellectual. The women, except for one minor character, are heterosexual but sometimes drawn to homosexual men. A lot of the humor of the novel comes from the discomfiture about uncertainty about sexual leanings, as well as from social and intellectual differences. The ways in which these and other characters appropriate Cecil, or his memory, is what the book is about.
HISTORY: Throughout the first section of the novel (1913) war with Germany is imminent, and in the second section we see its effects, though we see other things too -- and in the third section, set around 1967, one character (the husband of Corinna, Daphne's daughter by Dudley Valance) is disturbed by the effects of his WW2 service. After that, what we might call later world-historical events don't impinge on the scene.
FINALLY . . . I've said nothing about the plot in detail. Read it and enjoy it.
on 8 April 2012
The Stranger's Child is almost certainly well written... I am sure the editing was first class with nary a word out of place. The research spot-on and the depiction of the middle and upper echelons of the British class system is probably second to none. The problem? the big fat sweaty ugly truth about this exceedingly mannered book? It has no heart. I didn't care about Cecil, Daphne, George, Paul, Peter or any of the other tedious middle/upper class parodies that populated this frosty little story which had a whole heap of leering and palpitations but no love, no courage, no point. This book actually made me sad because it was a void.
on 1 August 2011
If you like Hollinghurst you'll like this.
If you've read everything else he's written you'll like this.
If you like Forster, Waugh, Angus Wilson, you'll like this.
If you want a nursery treat spiked with a little adult nastiness and 'fine writing' you'll like this.
But if you come to this book asking for anything different from the usual pay load of autumnal nostalgia, metropolitan superficiality, suburban insecurity, set piece scenes, buggery in the shrubbery, faded worship of a fading aristocracy and musical snobbery you will be disappointed.
The book isn't an advance on anything that Hollinghurst has done - simply a reiteration of everything he's always done.
The result is that a certain kind of fatigue sets in early and never leaves. The book feels like it was written dutifully. I certainly read it dutifully. The reviewers will doubtless fall into line to praise it dutifully.
But it doesn't sing. It doesn't shock or sting. It doesn't make you laugh. And it never really ask you think as much as it invites you to wallow around in an always-shifting-but-never-really-changing view of a certain kind of Englishness that feels vaporous, clapped out and terribly, terribly tired. Maybe that's the point. But it doesn't invite a second reading.
Let's hope that the next book, doubtless as well written as everything else he does, will be less well mannered.
on 6 August 2012
I so wanted to love this book. The first section, set in 1913, is sublime. We are in Forster territory: Edwardian garden parties, twilight, old houses, hammocks, poetry, servants, hidden pools for naked bathing. All of the literary signposts are there: it's an English undergraduate's wet dream. And then, somewhat clumsily, we find ourselves shunted ten years into the future. New characters join ones we met in the first section. Fine - they're an interesting bunch, and with minimal effort we can get into the swing of the narrative again. And then another shift - now we're in 1967 - and virtually every character is new, or unrecognisable by ageing. By this time my brain was reeling, but I was hopeful that we were reaching resolution. But, no! Now we're in 1979 - and now 2008!!! How many authors would have the nerve to introduce so many new characters in the last 60 pages of a 560 page book? Well this one does, and I'm sorry but he does not pull it off.
The effect of all of this is extremely irritating. The lack of resolution is frustrating and clearly done on purpose - after all, one of the book's themes is undoubtedly the gaps in stories that can never be filled. But there is simply no sense of an ending here - the whole narrative is a series of unresolved arcs, firing off into the future and fading to nothing. In fact, for me, the whole book is something of a misfire.
on 30 August 2011
This book began well, with a family weekend in 1913 going confused and sour. Another house party goes a-jangle in 1926, and then another, in 1967. These big crowd scenes each held my interest, but that's about it. Otherwise a thinness kept setting in, a sour thinness, and there was no return to the earlier liveliness.
What's the point? Everything people say in the dialogue amounts to more or less nonsense, at once cover-up and assertion of power. English life seems to run like an Oxford tutorial of the nastier kind. Nothing is real except gay sex, and then it turns out not even that has much substance once it no longer has to be furtive and sneaky.
The start of the book shifted across social classes, from the servant lad to the aristo visitor in the middle class home, and this had me mistakenly hoping the book would open out, go panoramic, in the way of Angus Wilson. But it didn't, and you're left with the impression sex was raunchier back in the days when it wasn't supposed to happen. Gosh.