This is the third book I’ve read by Alan Hollinghurst, the others being The Line of Beauty and The Swimming Pool Library. Like those two novels, this book was beautifully and lyrically crafted. It occurs to me that Hollinghurst is particularly good at representing the allure of closed circles to outsiders. Those circles can be social, as we see in the third part of this book, when middle-class Paul finds himself in the charmed circle of Mrs Jacobs and her family. They can also be circles of friendship or love, like the relationship between Cecil and George at the beginning of the book, of which innocent Daphne wants so much to be a part. But at what cost do we join such circles?
In The Stranger’s Child, Hollinghurst’s broader theme is the persistence of memory. He explores the way that the past can overpower the present and drain life of its savour; the relationship of biographer to biographee; and the efforts to which people go, to ensure that their view becomes the canonical view. It all centres on Cecil Valance, a talented young poet who spends a few days in 1916 staying with George Sawle, a university friend. Flirting harmlessly with his friend’s sister Daphne (while carrying on a much more serious flirtation with George), Cecil writes a long poem in her autograph book. When he is killed in action in the First World War, his family promotes and celebrates his talent as a writer and the poem in Daphne’s book is published and becomes recognised as his greatest work. Daphne herself gradually becomes inseparable from, and oppressed by, her youthful love affair.
We dip into the story five times over the course of several decades, witnessing the meteoric rise of Cecil’s fame. Hollinghurst charts the misfortunes of posthumous reputation: Cecil’s poetry gradually loses its popularity but his private life comes in for ever greater scrutiny and research. In the course of the book we meet several people who write books about Cecil, ranging from his proud, tormented brother who wants only to escape from his shadow, to the young researcher who is determined to dig up ‘the truth’, no matter what the emotional cost to Cecil’s friends and family.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first section of the book, because I’m a sucker for Brideshead Revisited and The Go-Between and Atonement and all those stories of country houses lingering on the brink of, or between, the wars. I was also interested to see Hollinghurst giving such a key role to a female character – Daphne is the rock around which all else swirls and eddies – when he has traditionally focused so strongly on gay male relationships. But… As the book went on, it steadily became clear that virtually all of Hollinghurst’s male characters are either openly gay or struggling towards the door of the closet. Now, in itself I have no issue with this, but as Hollinghurst has decided to give strong roles to a couple of women, I felt sorry that he only really seemed to be interested in the romantic dynamics between his male characters.
On the one hand, you might argue that in doing so he’s just trying to balance out the last few hundred years of fiction, in which (for obvious reasons) gay relationships have been rather overlooked. But on the other hand, his decision has the unpleasant aura of Social Message Fiction, which I dislike. I read a book for its story, and anything that disrupts the flow of that story for me becomes an irritant. (To be fair to Hollinghurst, he did throw in a curveball of sexual equality by giving one of his female characters a brief Sapphic moment.) However, do you know what would have made me genuinely happy about this book? I would have liked to see that just one of his heterosexual couples was happy. All of them seemed to be in loveless matches with no spark or affection between the partners – the men distant and troubled, the women aloof, intellectual and frustrated. The only people who really fall in love or enjoy themselves in Hollinghurst’s worlds, it seems, are the gay men. And, while I admire the elegance of his writing and the cleverness of the concept in this book, that void remains at the emotional centre of his work.
It may just be me. And I remain an admirer of his writing and will read his next book too, if only to see where he goes next.