The Stranger's Child (2011) by Alan Hollinghurst
The only other Alan Hollinghurst book I've read is the beautiful but disturbing Booker Prize winner The Line of Beauty, which, from what I can gather, is typical of his work. The Stranger's Child, then, is a departure: while homosexuality and gay relationships are a strong theme throughout the book, it is a family saga spanning almost a hundred years - stretching from the eve of the First World War to the present day - and is the first Hollinghurst novel to feature major female characters. Divided into five parts, the book follows several generations of the Sawle and Valance families. Cecil Valance - first introduced as the young lover of George Sawle - is the central figure of The Stranger's Child; a bisexual poet and aesthete, he achieves fame - and creates an impact which will resonate throughout history - with a poem titled "Two Acres", ostensibly a message of ardour directed at George's teeenage sister, Daphne. Daphne is the secondary protagonist, and while Cecil remains frozen in time as an increasingly mythical figure, we follow her through youthful infatuation, marriage, motherhood, family life and old age. Later, a younger character is introduced: Paul Bryant, an aspiring writer whose obsession with Cecil and the two families' entwined histories leads him to pen a speculative, sensational (and in fact remarkably accurate) biography.
I initially found it quite difficult to adapt to the narrative jumps between generations. After the opening, which I instantly loved, I struggled to get used to the second section. But by the time this ended, I had become so involved that I hated the next skip forward in time. However, by the end I was glad this device had been used; to see the impact of these characters on their descendants near to a century later gives the story a uniquely insightful feel. You really get the sense not only that you've genuinely known these people, but that you've travelled through time to see how the echoes of their thoughts, feelings and actions have reverberated down the years. Hollinghurst is clearly a fan of keeping the reader guessing - each of the sections opens in such a way that makes everything a complete mystery at first, with the truth gradually revealed; there are some witty red herrings in the narrative too, and the dates of each event are never actually given, just subtly implied through cultural changes, topics of conversation, the characters' manners and clothes.
Because the story takes leaps through time, it's impossible for me to discuss the plot in any detail without giving away significant spoilers - so I won't. However, I do really want to talk about how much I loved the party scene in the second section of the book. It's an absolute masterclass in writing; I actually don't understand how Hollinghurst managed to write it in such a way, as if you are there with the characters as they move from room to room, in the thick of the action, experiencing the confusion of drunken fragments of conversation and the disorientation caused by interaction between a number of people with disparate goals and desires. It's breathtakingly filmic and one of the most impressive and memorable scenes I have read in any book in recent memory. Surely, surely, a television adaptation of this novel must already have been mooted. Fans of Downton Abbey and the like would absolutely lap it up.
This was a slow, leisurely read rather than a compulsive one, but for all that I enjoyed it immensely. I was immediately drawn in by the first two sections, which bear what I'm sure is a deliberate resemblance to Brideshead Revisited; the period, the relationship between George and Cecil, the significance of the two families' houses ("Two Acres" and Corley Court, the latter clearly the book's Brideshead). I thought the book sagged in the middle somewhat, and the introduction of Paul was troublesome - he isn't likeable, though this is necessary for his character to work - but the plot gained momentum in the last few chapters and I found myself captivated by Paul's race to uncover the 'truth'. The short final section wrapped things up neatly - I enjoyed the fact that we see members of yet another new generation still obsessed by Cecil, suggesting that this will always continue while the man himself will remain an unknowable enigma. Therefore, the ending itself, which is left somewhat open, seems a fitting conclusion even as it is a little frustrating. I didn't want the book to end, and I wished more time could have been spent on the final section - I understand that Paul's introduction was necessary as a bridge between the generations, but I think it could have been done with more brevity.
It's a real shame The Stranger's Child was excluded from this year's Booker shortlist, and I can't help but feel it's been snubbed precisely because it seemed like such an obvious choice. Though both were very good and neither perfect, I think The Stranger's Child has the edge over The Line of Beauty; its scope and ambition make it both more appealing and more resonant. I didn't fall head over heels in love with the book, but nevertheless, I believe it's worth the hype.