The Stranger’s Child is Alan Hollinghurst’s fifth novel and like the previous four, including, most famously, his Booker-winning The Line Of Beauty, it’s knee-deep in awkward young upper-class men, covert and overt homosexuality, and very, very grand houses. Unlike the other books, this one ostensibly revolves around a female character, Daphne Sawle (if you listen to the cover blurb), but it’s not really about her, and neither is it about the other central figure, fictional poet Cecil Valance; rather, Hollinghurst’s book is a commentary on biography, memoir, autobiography and fiction – a study of the telling of lives, or, more aptly, the impossibly of telling a life-story with any real accuracy.
The novel opens with sixteen year-old Daphne Sawle meeting Cecil Valance for the first time; Daphne immediately develops a crush on Cecil, semi-famous poet and heir to a title and a large estate, whilst Cecil himself is more attracted (in true Hollinghurst style) to Daphne’s brother, George. Through the next few hundred pages we hear how Cecil gained some small fame as a poet (though he’s later derided as second-rate) and then died in the First World War, and how Daphne married his younger brother, Dudley, and bore him two children before divorcing and remarrying twice. The book’s split into five sections and while the first two track Daphne’s interactions with the Valance clan pretty closely, the latter three follow various distant witnesses to her life – most significantly, Cecil’s eventual biographer, and the man that outed his homosexuality, Paul Bryant. Spanning almost a century, The Stranger’s Child weaves together Cecil’s and Daphne’s stories with those of the people obsessed with narrating them.
It sounds a little dry when I lay it out like that, but in fact it’s not; Hollinghurst is an excellent storyteller and has a superb ear for a particularly English variety of reticent conversation, with most of his characters constantly stumbling around awkward topics in an agony of embarrassed indecision. It’s very funny, but it’s more than a humorous novel; it’s an insightful examination of storytelling itself. The book’s set out as a series of discrete scenes that together show how the truth about Cecil’s life (or any life) is inextricably entangled with the varying interpretations, lies and ignorance of those people apparently best placed to tell it. Daphne, George and Dudley, and their children, servants and friends, all approach Cecil’s tale from very particular angles with very particular agendas, and so each scene plays against the previous ones to illustrate how apparently significant details will continue to get buried, forgotten and deleted, and how the life in question gets more obscured even as more people struggle to excavate it. The point of the novel, then, is that it’s impossible to objectively narrate somebody’s life – or in fact any story – because you’re always dealing with these angles and agendas and omissions. In this case, time, jealousy and wilful blindness to others’ sexualities all make sure that Cecil’s story is never his own, but merely a reflection of the lives of the people interested in him.
It does, however, take a little while for this theme to become apparent. Though even as early as the second section we can see that the process of reporting Cecil’s life is underway – with Sebby Stokes’ interrogations of the family – it’s not until later, with Bryant’s inept digging, that this aspect is clearly revealed as the main concern of the book. Personally, I wasn’t hugely interested in Daphne’s love-life, so even as I read the earlier sections and laughed at her social encounters, I did wonder where the story was leading. Still, it comes together powerfully in the end, and the theme of thwarted storytelling works really well in retrospect – I was almost tempted to launch right back in and reread it with a greater awareness of Hollinghurst’s treatment of his subject.
Any Cop?: It’s not flawless. It’s hard to keep the characters straight, never mind the thicket of family relationships that link them, and I could have done with an index. The sex scenes are classic, or, you might say, predictable Hollinghurst. And though he might do young males with wonderful insight, a great painter of the sixteen year-old female psyche, he ain’t. On the other hand, he’s a brilliant prose stylist, so it’s very readable, even given the great length (over five hundred pages), and (I know I’m repeating myself, but it’s worth repeating) he’s very, very funny. Have patience with this one and it’ll pay off.