Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel, A Stranger’s Child, is a meditation on memory, biography and how we see the past.
At its centre is a poet, Cecil Valance, who is killed in the first world war. Valance is a Rupert Brooke-like character, but not quite; he is more aristocratic and not quite so blondly beautiful as Brooke was. The whole book examines how Valance’s legacy changes; but it also muses on memory in general as various people try to find out the truth about Valance’s life. We are left with feeling that the truth is a fleeting thing, depending on our vantage point. As one character says towards the end of the book while recalling for the umpteenth time her memories of Valance. ‘All memories are memories of memories’. And is the person telling us the memory or to whom they are telling it - do they have their own agenda? We are consistently told revelations which later have doubts cast on their authenticity. ‘Candour is our watchword’ says George Valance trying to cover up his embarrassment at his mother letting slip her knowledge that Cecil has invited him to join the secret society, The Apostles. People in this book are either not candid, or falsely appear to be candid.
Cecil Valance is the aristocratic outsider who visits an upper-middle class English house in Middlesex that belongs to the family of his Cambridge friend, George Sawle, in the idyllic summer of 1913. The house is named ‘Two Acres’ after the small (compared with the Valance estate of thousands) English garden where the sexually adventurous Cecil and the more cautious George indulge in raucous sex and Valance later kisses George’s naïve sixteen year old sister, Daphne. Cecil writes a version of a poem he has been working on in Daphne’s schoolgirl autograph book, extolling the bucolic nature of the house and garden and expressing love for the recipient of the poem who everyone (apart from George and us) deems to be Daphne. After Cecil’s death, this poem is lauded by among others, Churchill, as emblematic of an English idyll before the Fall. The poem and how it is viewed is a running theme throughout the whole book which is split into 4 parts set in 1913, 1926, 1967 and 1979. There is a short coda set in 2008. At first glance, it could be seen as a sprawling saga of 2 intertwined families, the Valances and the Sawles. But each part covers only a couple of days in minutiae, and all the ‘action’ of marriage, divorce, affairs takes place off-stage, in the intervals that are not written about. This examination of a small period of time, which Hollinghurst does so effortlessly, means the feeling is more of a four intertwined novellas. However, the guiding thread is the poem and how it comes to be seen differently as the century progresses. With changing mores, the poem is recognised as written by a man for a man, just as we were told in the first part of the novel.
The book also shows how being gay has changed over the century. From being illegal to the passing of the 1967 Act to a memorial in 2008 attended by various contented civil-partnered husbands.
The changing legacy of the poem and how our general view of the past changes with the times is shown with mention in 1967 of Michael Holroyd’s ground-breaking study of Lytton Strachey’s life. This was a new type of ‘warts-and-all’ biography, different from the hagiographies of previous decades and it was this type of biography that Paul Burnett, a character in the last three parts of the novel, writes on Valance, uncovering not only Valance’s sexuality, but also lurid tales of questionable paternity in Valance’s wider family. But how reliable is Burnett? Right at the end a character casts doubt his reliability; she has discovered untruths he has told about his own life.
This covering over the past is shown in Dudley Valance’s (Cecil’s brother who Daphne eventually marries) boxing in of what he sees as Victorian monstrosities in Corley House in the twenties. He is trying to covering over painful memories of his mother trying to communicate by séance with her dead son, Cecil, after the war. Of course, later these gothic ‘monstrosities’ become fashionable.
Hollinghurst has the marvellous ability to really get inside a character’s consciousness in detail and depth while still making sure that his scenes are full of life of vigour. His writing is always such a joy to read, page after page of peerless prose that slips down like the first gin and tonic of the evening. However, I was left with the feeling that this book was not one of his absolute best, though that still means it’s much better than a lot of other literary novels. Perhaps it is the fact that it covers such a long period and some of the characters of the more modern sections do not seem as entertaining or engrossing as the previous parts. Paul Burnett digs around for dirt without actually providing much interest. The book seems to sag slightly in the later sections.
As Theo Tait in The Guardian said when comparing The Stranger’s Child with Hollinghurt’s previous dazzling array of novels, such as The Swimming Pool Library, and the Booker-winning In the Line of Beauty: ‘It's merely very good: it doesn't leave you dazed, page after page, with the brilliance, wit and subtlety of its perception’ However, he then writes ‘The Stranger's Child will no doubt be one of the best novels published this year.’
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