Monday 30 July 2012

The Stranger’s Child – Alan Hollinghurst (2011)

In 2004 Alan Hollinghurst made literary headlines by winning the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Line of Beauty. Set in Thatcher’s 1980’s Britain it courted mild controversy with its depictions of cocaine abuse and graphic gay sex. Seven years later The Stranger’s Child made the Man Booker long list and then fell out of contention, which led to bitter complaints from those critics who believe that Hollinghurst is Britain’s greatest living writer.

I approached this book with optimism. I hadn’t read The Line of Beauty but I knew enough to realize that Hollinghust could be an interesting proposition. The novel begins just prior to WWI and finds the sixteen-year-old Daphne Sawle reading poetry and awaiting the arrival of her older brother George and his university friend Cecil Valance - a poet from a wealthy family who also happens to be bisexual. Cecil’s impact over the course of his stay is significant; he upsets George’s mother, who suspects the truth of their relationship, causes a servant to marvel at his collection of silken underwear, frolics with George in the woods and flirts with Daphne. Most significantly he writes a poem, supposedly for Daphne, called “Two Acres”, after the name of the Sawles property. After his death in the war Cecil and his poem become immortalized when Winston Churchill quotes from “Two Acres” in a speech.

The events of this first section, just one of five, set the novel up for an exploration of mythmaking, the changing attitudes to homosexuality and the subjective nature of truth. Hollinghurst also devotes a great deal of space to the question of the moral ambiguity of biographers and their trade, particularly during the latter half of the book. Such a concentration of weighty themes seems more than enough to make the novel both entertaining and philosophically intriguing. Disappointingly The Stranger’s Child mostly fails in both regards, although it does have its moments.

The novel’s strengths lay in the way it depicts the evolution of British culture during the twentieth century and how it affected people’s lives. In this regard the scope of the novel is ambitious and does at least move the plot forward. The naiveté and pleasures of the pre war section give way to the bleak post war section, in which Daphne has married Cecil’s brother – Dudley, who is beset by mental problems due to his part in the war. Everyone suffers, including the children, Daphne and an old German woman who comes to an untimely end (a parody of Agatha Christie?). The third and most pleasing section, set in 1967, finds several gay characters, including the future Cecil biographer Paul Bryant, discussing the impending decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain. By the novel’s close, set in 2008, everything’s changed and significantly the gay characters are marrying each other and can now live their lives in the open.

Despite the novel’s initial promise and Hollinghurst’s ambition I was quite often utterly bored with The Stranger's Child. Turgid is a good adjective to use. There is simply too much dialogue, with endless boring interactions between characters at parties and dinners. During these extended scenes the characters are regularly nervous to the point of being neurotic. Often they appear to be hamstrung by politeness and therefore never say what they really mean. Hollinghurst is probably making a point about what it is to be English or even human, but unfortunately it happens so often that you begin to tire of it and start to feel that way yourself.

With many of the major events taking place outside of the narrative the plot is stretched thin and therefore there is virtually no tension generated and no real desire to find out what may happen next, or to invest emotionally in the characters. The novel is also overwritten to the point of exhaustion. No character can speak without a description of their facial expression or how they are looking narrowly at another character or off into the middle distance. Hollinghurst’s writing is incredibly detailed, which is sometimes quite startlingly effective, but his obsession with the minutiae of everyday interactions does not make for riveting reading.

As a literary monument to the cultural history of Britain over much of the twentieth century The Stranger's Child succeeds to an extent, but it is ultimately hamstrung by its flaws. As with most books some readers respond well whilst others do not. A handful of my book club members absolutely loved this book, but most either marginally appreciated it or thought that it was too long and tedious. In the end The Stranger’s Child simply made me yearn for the succinct brilliance of Carson McCuller’s writing. Despite Hollinghurst’s fine reputation my advice is to approach this novel with caution, or perhaps not at all. It seems that the judges of the Man Booker prize were right after all.

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