Early on in The Stranger’s Child, Hubert Sawle, the dull oldest son of the Sawle family – even his mother thinks that ‘he would surely be completely bald’ before he has the chance to ‘bloom’ – writes a letter. With skilful ventriloquism, Alan Hollinghurst creates a masterpiece of banality: ‘I can never thank you enough for the silver cigarette case. It’s an absolute ripper, Harry old boy. I have told no one about it yet but will hand it round after dinner & just watch their faces!’ For the reader, the situation is even more humorous because Hubert seems to put so much effort into writing this simple thank-you note: ‘the letter ran on pleasantly, and reading it over again he felt satisfied with the touches of humour’ and places so much importance on his correspondence: ‘He stood looking at it for a moment’. As Hubert’s younger brother, George, daringly invites his lover, the poet Cecil Valance, to stay, and plans secret trysts in the garden and woods, Hubert’s concerns seem incredibly trivial. However, at the end of this novel, a hundred years later, it is not a juicy letter to George that an interested young man discovers in a notebook, but all of Hubert’s thank-you notes, copied carefully by their recipient, Harry Hewitt – and other letters to Hubert himself that contain an even more interesting revelation. Hubert is absent for virtually all of this long novel, and the suggestions in these letters are ultimately impossible to verify, but, as with all the characters in this novel, a very different Hubert eventually emerges, contradicting and yet somehow confirming our first impressions.
As this suggests, Hollinghurst is deeply concerned with how we alter over time, but, paradoxically, how some essential core of our being remains unalterable. Like Tolstoy, he brilliantly conveys the ageing and changing of his characters, but ensures that they remain recognisable, showing their older selves layering over their younger incarnations like Russian dolls. And when characters die young, like Cecil and Hubert in the First World War, they undergo even more complex metamorphoses as they are re-imagined for new generations. A lesser writer would have stuck closely to the wisdom of our esteemed friend Patrick Lagrange from The Sense of an Ending, and focused on the unreliability of all testimony, the mistakes, the misrememberings, the impossibility of finding out anything about the past. Daringly, Hollinghurst has Cecil’s biographer, Paul Bryant, discover important truths about Cecil’s life, although he preserves a clear sense of how memories distort into memories of themselves as Paul interviews two ageing friends of Cecil’s, George and Daphne Sawle. Lies and misunderstandings abound – and Hollinghurst weaves them into the fabric of all social life – but the thrill of Paul’s researches is his ability to gain direct, if brief, access to the forgotten past.
This obsession with the past might explain why some readers have felt that this book tails off after the wonderful first section – set at the Sawles’ home, ‘Two Acres’, in 1913, it vividly depicts Cecil’s visit, and his impact on George and his siblings, Hubert and Daphne. Cecil himself feels so real that the reader is struck by his absence in the second section, set in the 1920s, and the book does seem to falter a little at this point, like an engine restarting and then roaring back into life. (I wondered if this section simply became over-familiar – Hollinghurst triumphantly re-invents the Edwardian country house party, but the Roaring Twenties setting, with slightly forced references to flappers, feels a bit too Fitzgerald-esque.) However, by the third section, ‘Steady, boys, steady’, which rushes forward into the 1960s, Hollinghurst is in full swing again, and reading on, I had the sense that the lull after Cecil’s death was almost deliberate – it brings home, more adeptly than any other structural choice could have done, his sudden loss, and mentally prepares us for the retracing of his legacy that begins in earnest in the fourth and fifth sections.
As the book rushes forward through time, Hollinghurst is able to subtly trace the increasing social freedoms for gay men, without any sense that he’s on a soapbox. The gradual lifting of prejudice and restriction is so palpable that when a young man in the twenty-first century casually receives a text from another man – ‘see u 7 @ Style bar – cant wait! XxG’ – and a reference is made to ‘Desmond, Peter’s husband’ the reader breathes a sigh of relief, remembering George’s terror at being caught in the 1910s and Paul’s surrepitious reading of the coded personal ads in the 1960s, dreaming of ‘bachelor flats.’ This careful mapping of changing attitudes is a microcosm of Hollinghurst’s ability to recreate the specific atmosphere of each decade that he tackles, with – except in the 1920s – no sense of inessential historical detail. His choice to present a series of set-pieces is clearly a wise one, as this allows him to zoom in on the niceties of manners and mores without any conscious scene-setting. It also plays to his strengths – my favourite parts of his previous novel, The Line of Beauty, were the parties, especially Nick’s unforgettable dance with Thatcher – and keeps the reader gripped.
Because perhaps the most important thing to say about The Stranger’s Child, putting aside all meta-analysis of its themes of memory and loss, is that it’s simply a very good read. Hollinghurst hits the big three (Character, Plot and Style), presenting rounded, realistic characters doing interesting things in prose that is never less than elegant and engaging, even when he’s describing something as simple as an old lady chasing after her umbrella: ‘a spoke stuck up at a hopeless angle, the pink fabric flared loose, there was a lull and then a sudden slam of wind which wrenched the brolly out of her hands and off into the road, where it skidded and then leapt away with long hops between the parked cars.’ Hollinghurst’s style is so good precisely because he is not writing to impress; this is a serviceable bit of writing that forms a cog in the plot, an opportunity for a character interaction, and also a perfect description. This novel has been compared to Middlemarch, which is a bit of an exaggeration; to EM Forster, which is not; and to Atonement, where it emphatically comes out better. But enough of analysing it. Read it.