Book Review: The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

The Stranger's Child

 

Genre: LGBT+

Publishing Info: 2011 by Picador

Pages: 564

Star Rating: 4.5/5

 


Back Cover Summary:

In the late summer of 1913, George Sawle brings his Cambridge friend Cecil Valance, a charismatic young poet, to visit his family home. Filled with intimacies and confusions, the weekend will link the families for ever, but its deepest impact will be on George’s sixteen-year-old sister Daphne.

As the decades pass, Daphne and those around her endure startling changes in fortune and circumstance, reputations rise and fall, secrets are revealed and hidden and the events of that long-ago summer become part of a legendary story, told and interpreted in different ways by successive generations.

Powerful, absorbing and richly comic, The Stranger’s Child is a masterly exploration of English culture, taste and attitudes over a century of change.

When studying for my English Literature degree at university, I was assigned to read The Line of Beauty as part of a gender and sexuality module. Upon reading it, I was drawn in by Hollinghurst’s narrative techniques and identified with the honest portrayal of his protagonists. Subsequently I studied several of his novels for my dissertation. However, The Stranger’s Child was not one of them. After graduating I became interested in completing his collection of novels and I am very glad that I started with this one as it has possibly become my favourite Hollinghurst novel.

The opening drops the reader into the middle of a suburban London family waiting for the arrival of a small time poet in pre-war England. Before the readers can get too comfortable with the characters and setting, Hollinghurst launches them a decade further on, where secrets are hidden and inaccurate memoirs are already being written. This becomes the pattern for the novel, Hollinghurst providing five different sections that capture the flavour of the period whilst throwing readers into the deep end on multiple occasions, making them work to discover what happened between the family and the poet from the first section. This is a major strength of the novel and is reflected by the way in which memories of memories warp over time, just as information is provided about characters we follow over time that make us question their motives and whether what they said is actually the case.

This novel is also extremely topical to an audience reading this in 2017, the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexual acts between two men over the age of 21. The third section of the novel follows two twenty-something men growing closer on the eve of the act being passed through. The part of the novel that follows the act becomes akin to a detective story, with homosexual relationships between characters both past and present becoming far more open and discussed in public. If I were to have one criticism of Hollinghurst, it would be that the overt homosexual tone, including graphic descriptions of sex between men, threatens to unbalance the plots of his works. However in The Stranger’s Child, he seamlessly balances the personal lives of the gay characters with the overall themes and tone of the novel to create something that reads as something more than a novel with homosexual themes. The way that memories are portrayed and the drip-feed of information provided to readers are revealed as the narrative progresses also makes it a critique of the biographical process and how unreliable narration can be when we don’t know everything about the central character.

Travelling across the past century, Hollinghurst has written something that audiences from every generation can identify with and I am eagerly awaiting the general release in a couple of days of his newest novel, The Sparsholt Affair, which I hope will be just as brilliant as this one.

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