Book review of The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
Alan Hollinghurst’s novel is a showcase for bravura writing. Such praise could be off-putting: the glitter of fine writing often elevates style over substance. Perhaps I should therefore stress straight away that The Stranger’s Child is not only written with extraordinary beauty, but is also exceptionally readable — and this even though the narrative is fragmented by chronological leaps, the characterisation disrupted by shifts in perspective. The author’s imagination is teased by the extent to which we are strangers to each other, and the way in which the past becomes strange to the present. His genius lies in his ability to intrigue the reader, too, suggesting the hinterland of a secret, vivid life, glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, as it were. Hollinghurst is superbly skilled at heightening awareness of the liminal: a man “listening to the silence” beside his lover’s tomb hears “chapel silence, with its faint penumbra of excluded sounds — birdsong, periodic rattle of the distant mower, soft thumps that were less the wind in the roof than the pulse in his ear.”
The novel begins, in conventional fashion, with a visit. It opens in 1913, when 16-year-old Daphne Sawle is waiting for her brother, George, to bring an aristocratic friend from Cambridge to his suburban house, “Two Acres”. Like so many of the characters in this book, Daphne feels herself marginalised: hearing the approaching laughter of the undergraduates, she feels herself “not in on the joke.” Her youth and sex exclude her.
Naturally, readers will immediately suspect that there is more to the friendship between George Sawle and the supercilious young poet, Cecil Valance, than meets the eye of a 16-year-old sister in 1913. Daphne knows that she is missing out on something, hearing the faintest of sounds, a moan, some giggles — from the hammock in the garden after dark.
But the whole visit is alive with nuances, possibilities, as the middle-class household react to their confident intruder: the widowed mother, drinking just a bit too much; the sweetly dull elder brother, Hubert, trying to fill the place of the man of the house with the help of his new moustache, defensively jocose (“I’m no expert on poetry”); the house-boy, Jonah, anxiously excited by being promoted upstairs to look after Cecil during his stay, uncertain of his duties, and puzzled by what he finds in the wastepaper basket (why has George written “Veins” to Cecil, “if that was how you spelt it, ‘Viens'”; and why is there a torn-up poem about the hammock in the garden?) There are shades of the black comedy found in Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour in this opening section.
Hollinghurst excels at evoking the liminal moment just before a first, sexually charged touch — that moment of being shiveringly aware of the boundary between skin and self. And even within a relationship, one may, excitingly, find oneself touching a stranger. George, in thrall to Cecil and the “airy aggressions” of his assumed superiority, finds his “secret mischief had something rougher in it”. Yet this hint of a dark unknown only makes Cecil more alluring.
When he leaves, Cecil writes a poem in Daphne’s girlish album, entitled “Two Acres” — a reworking, for public consumption, of his lines on the garden and its hammock. But there the novel breaks off; when it restarts, in the 1920s, Cecil is dead. “Two Acres” has become his version of “Grantchester” — a famous evocation of a lost England. One of the keen incidental pleasures of this novel is the accuracy of Hollinghurst’s imitation of the verse and letters of this period (and, indeed, the other decades spanned by this novel). Cecil’s poetry, with its Georgian plangencies, is pitch-perfect.
The rest of the novel follows the Sawle and Valance families via Cecil’s posthumous reputation. In the 1920s, the first, discreetly hagiographical biography of Cecil is written by one of his many Cambridge admirers. There is a vignette of Cecil’s family home on the weekend this biographer comes to stay. Corley Court, a “Victorian monstrosity”, beloved by Cecil and his mother, is now undergoing a “hygienic” 1920s make-over by Cecil’s obscurely vengeful younger brother, Dudley, who has married Daphne. Dudley is dangerously unhinged, either by his wartime experiences, or perhaps by his mother’s excessive and exclusive love and grief for Cecil; and the family skirts around the black hole of his unpredictable rages.
By 1967, Corley Court has become a school — a transformation detailed as lovingly as one of Osbert Lancaster’s enchanting drawings in Scene Changes. Even as a school, it has its melancholy mysteries: the music room, with its brown linoleum, has as its sole adornment “above the blocked-off fireplace, […] an oleograph of Brahms, ‘Presented by his Family in Memory of N.E. Harding 1938-53.’ Peter sometimes tried to imagine the family deciding on this particular gift.”
Peter Rowe is a young schoolmaster, aware that he is excluded from the secret lives of the boys. He meets and starts an affair with a young bank clerk, Paul Bryant, who has just met the elderly Daphne and her daughter. In Peter and Paul’s affair, Peter is dominant; though it is sexual expertise rather than class that counts in 1967.
Houses are altered, sexual mores change, tastes in literature shift, relationships transmute through time. Paul overtakes his sexual mentor in becoming Cecil’s biographer, though a tantalisingly inept one. He tip-toes ingratiatingly around the edges of the academic world for which he lacks qualifications, picking up fag-ends of mysterious feuds (“That was all bloody Trevor-Roper’s doing!”). He tracks down as many survivors as possible from that weekend of lost intimacies; but his interviewees clam up, or his tape-recorder breaks down. When he interviews George, whose inhibitions are eroded by medication, it is difficult to tell if George’s indiscretions are truths told on the threshold of death, or borderline dementia. Sexual revelations, however, are the sine qua non for the modern biography, so Paul publishes anyway. As Hollinghurst suggests, the present belief that all Edwardians were secretly queer (or, if homosexual, secretly straight) is a product of this age.
Even if not all writers, past or present, are necessarily gay, the best of those who are may, like Hollinghurst, be particularly attuned to the outsider’s way of seeing: vivid, fresh, edged with danger. This, indeed, is almost a truism. Why Hollinghurst is so good is because he also knows that “the stranger’s child” who, in In Memoriam, brings “fresh association” to the landscape, irrevocably overlays and loses the past. Hollinghurst’s sense of beauty, past and present, is edged with mystery and loss.