The defining event of Alan Hollinghurst’s new 564-page novel, The Stranger’s Child, is a 1913 weekend visit by the young poet, Cecil Valance, to Two Acres, the almost-rural home (it’s in Middlesex, then on London’s outskirts) of his Cambridge chum, George Sawle. George is besotted with Cecil and they have already started a tentative affair. Also already besotted with Cecil, even though she has yet to meet him, is George’s 16-year-old sister Daphne.
Daphne is in the garden, awaiting the arrival of the two — they are late (the excuse will be that Cecil missed his train) because they have taken “the long way” to Two Acres, a chance for some time alone on a weekend that will be dominated by being with the Sawle family. Daphne hears them and spots them in the distance:
Under the trees the dusk was deeper, and their little wood seemed interestingly larger. The boys were dawdling, for all Cecil’s note of impatience. Their pale clothes, the rim of George’s boater, caught the failing light as they moved slowly between the birch-trunks, but their faces were hard to make out. George had stopped and was poking at something with his foot, Cecil, taller, standing close beside him, as if to share his view of it. She went cautiously towards them, and it took her a moment to realize that they were quite unaware of her; she stood still, smiling awkwardly, let out an anxious gasp, and then, mystified and excited, began to explore her position. She knew that Cecil was a guest and too grown-up to play a trick on, though George was surely in her power. But having the power, she couldn’t think what to do with it. Now Cecil had his hand on George’s shoulder, as if consoling him, though he was laughing too, more quietly than before; the curves of their two hats nudged and overlapped. She thought there was something nice in Cecil’s laugh, after all, a whinny of good fun, even if, as so often, she was not included in the joke. Then Cecil raised his head and saw her and said, ‘Oh, hello!’ as if they’d already met several times and enjoyed it.
That is a very long quote to be ended with ‘Oh, hello!’ as its moment of dramatic conclusion, but it is chosen deliberately. Hollinghurst is sometimes Proustian in prose style and often uses hundreds of words to develop in advance observations on all the nuances of what turns out to be a seemngly prosaic conclusion when he finally gets to it. To appreciate it, you need to be able to treat every comma, semi-colon and colon as an extended word itself (also a talent that Proust requires). And you have to quickly adjust yourself to the idea that most outcomes of these flights will not be dramatic but are important in the writer’s overall scheme of things.
The author uses the weekend to introduce an expansive cast of characters who will return (either themselves or their offspring or their offspring’s offspring) in the near-century of narrative that will follow in the book. This list is only a start but that includes George and Daphne’s older brother, Hubert; Harry Hewitt, the bachelor neighbor who keeps sending Hubert expensive presents (the most recent being a gramaphone); and Jonah, the young servant boy who has been conscipted as Cecil’s “valet” for the weekend.More important to the structure of the book, however, is the way that Hollinghurst uses the weekend visit to sketch the theme that will be even more central to the book than those specific characters. Cecil comes from Corley Court, a far grander estate than the modest Two Acres, and his ascending literary reputation (Daphne finds elements of Tennyson in him) is based on poems describing Corley. While there is much talk about creating poetry on the weekend — and even some carefully-staged reading — the creative discovery that will dominate the novel occurs when, after Cecil has departed, George heads upstairs in search of Daphne’s autograph album which the guest has promised to sign.
A minute later George came back down, with Jonah at his heels, and Daphne’s mauve album open in his hands. ‘My word, sis…’ he said abstactedly, turning the page and continuing to read; ‘he’s certainly done you proud!’
‘What is it?’ said Daphne, pushing back her chair but determined to keep her dignity, almost to seem indifferent. Not just his name, then: she could see it was much, much more — now that the book was here, open, in the room, she felt quite frightened at the thought of what might come out of it.
‘The gentleman left it in the room,’ said Jonah, looking from one to the other of them.
‘Yes, thank you,’ said Daphne. George was blinking slowly and softly biting his lower lip in concentration. He might have been pondering how to break some rather awkward news to her, as he came and sat down across from her, placing the book on the table then turning the pages back to start again. ‘Well, when you’ve finished,’ Daphne said tartly, but also with reluctant respect. What Cecil had written was poetry, which took longer to read, and his handwriting wasn’t of the clearest.
‘Goodness,’ said George, and looked up at her with a firm little smile. ‘I think you should feel thoroughly flattered.’
The “autograph” turns out to be an extended poem, ‘Two Acres’, which both Daphne and George interpret as a love ode directed to her or him. Cecil will die in the Great War in a few years, leaving behind a slim oeuvre — ‘Two Acres’ will become a staple of English poetry anthologies and required reading for generations of students to come. While Hollinghurst skips decades and even generations as the rest of the novel develops (Daphne will marry three times, her first husband is Cecil’s younger brother), ‘Two Acres’ the poem is always present. The ‘real world’ of the novel is an exploration of the creative and academic classes of twentieth century England — the ‘creative world’ is how every person present at the weekend (and their children and grandchildren) are touched by the poem, its reputation and the way it influenced them. Their own efforts range from novels to autobiography to critical biography, but none of those works will escape the influence of the poem.
As I hope that brief outline indicates, it is not just prose style that provokes comparisons with Proust. While the time frame in this novel is much longer (and the overall literary project much, much shorter), the writing tactic of using “strategic digressions” to explore in detail various people and aspects influenced by central elements is present in both works. Androgyny, homosexuality and gender-based sexual politics are another commonality. As is the sense of oppression that history and memory impose on individuals in whatever the present tense is of each section.
For this reader, that is where the comparison ends. Hollinghurst won the 2004 Booker Prize for A Line of Beauty and this novel has attracted some enthusiastic reviews which proclaim The Stranger’s Child as a contender this year. It is not for me — the prose started out flat, moved on to annoying and became even more self-indulgent and tedious as the novel wore on. I like Proust (and his style) but I am afraid the characters and world that Hollinghurst portrays never came to life for me. Unable to enrol in either story or style, I found the read a difficult slog. Then again, I had similar troubles last year with Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question and it went on to win the Prize so maybe my taste and that of the Booker jury will diverge again this year.
A note to North American readers: My copy of The Stranger’s Child was an Advanced Reading Copy from Alfred A. Knopf, not due for release in the U.S. and Canada until October — and that is the cover featured at the top of the review — so I am jumping the gun with this review because of Booker considerations. The U.K. version was released July 1 and I have included that cover. While each accurately captures an aspect of the book, my view would be that the maze of the U.K. cover is a better graphic reflection of the novel — for me, reading it was like venturing into a maze that ended up being not very interesting. Others have obviously found it more rewarding.