The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

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The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Beautifully written and a delight to read, this broad episodic novel from 1913 to 2008 presents a nuanced and enthralling look at changes in social attitudes, particularly to homosexuality, amongst the more educated of society through the life of two families bound by a First World War poet.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 576 Date: July 2011
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-0330483247

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Alan Hollinghurst's Booker-nominated and long-awaited 'The Stranger's Child' is without doubt, as one might expect from this writer, beautifully written. Almost every page offers something to smile about either in terms of the comments of his characters or, more often, the wry descriptions that the author offers. The structure of the book is episodic, split into five parts covering pre-World War One, the 1920s, the 1960s, the 1980s and finally the early 2000s. It offers a thoughtful and well observed picture of changes in society and culture over this period and in particular of attitudes to homosexual relationships, although admittedly Hollinghurst's subjects tend to fall into a narrow band of well educated, artistic and often aristocratic members of society. Writers, poets and artists are the subject matter rather than the man on the street. His male characters are invariably homosexual while his females mostly either remain unmarried or have dysfunctional marriages.

The book opens with the upper-middle class family of the Sawle's just prior to the First World War and innocent 16 year old Daphne eagerly awaiting the return from the station of her older brother and his Cambridge University 'friend', the aristocratic young poet, Cecil Valance for a weekend visit to their home 'Two Acres'. While there, Cecil will write a pastoral-style love poem which Daphne believes is to her, but we know that it is her brother George who is the more likely subject. The poem, along with other war poetry, will go on to be the stuff taught in schools for generations depicting an English idyll, even though technically it isn't that great.

The relationships between the Sawle and titled Valance familes will be a running theme throughout the book first concentrating on a post-war house party at the Valance family home, Corley Court, as we learn the fall out of the war itself and the impact on the characters we met previously. Time-wise there's then a great leap forward to the 1960s and the introduction of new characters, notably a young man named Paul who has an affair with a young teacher at Corley Court, now a preparatory boarding school. While working in a local bank he meets, at yet another party, Daphne sparking an interest in the life of Cecil Valance which, by the fourth part sees him embarking on a biography of the poet as interviewees struggle to recall events and to hide what really happened in terms of their complex relationships. By the final chapter, hauntingly but tellingly preceded by a quote that No one remembers you at all things have moved on in terms of homosexual relationships and characters are involved in civil partnerships, but the progress of society means that much of what remained of the Sawle and Valance families, in terms of properties and possessions, have been lost to the march of time.

One problem with episodic narratives can be that the reader suffers from disorientation as new time scales and people are introduced, particularly when as here, the time leaps are long and the subjects that are the centre of the story change so abruptly. However, such is the skill and quality of Hollinghurst, this is not really an issue. However, presumably intentionally, he exchanges this for another frustration. Each time period seems to build up to a big event but this, like the details of any sexual activity, happens off stage as it were. Ultimately this was the effect of the book on me too - I loved it but never felt that my relationship with it was consummated, as it were.

It's impossible not to admire the prose and it is a thoughtful, often funny, intelligent look at changes in society and particularly attitudes to same sex relationships, as well as the march of so-called progress that obliterates the memory of the lives of people before, but this comes at something of a cost of character development. Hollinghurst creates some terrific characters who you ache to know more about and it's frustrating that some of the most poignant events in their lives are left purely to the imagination.

It owes much to the Forster style, perhaps with a little Waugh for good measure. It would make a terrific book club choice as it is choc full of issues to discuss (and here's a question to kick off - would it have been as or more effective if the parts were presented in reverse from latest to earliest?). It's a book that would easily stand re-reading and in terms of the quality of the prose, any book that is better this year will be very good indeed. But again I return to the feeling that it's like an unconsummated relationship and that's slightly frustrating.

Our huge thanks to the kind people at Picador for sending The Bookbag this novel for review.

If you particularly enjoyed the early parts of this book then Atonement by Ian McEwan will be right up your street, or for a more recent novel that also looks at social changes in the Edwardian age, then I strongly recommend Half of the Human Race by Anthony Quinn to you.

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Booklists.jpg The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst is in the Man Booker Prize 2011.


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