The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

When I sorted through my books this summer, I wasn’t surprised to see that barely any of the books I own are ‘contemporary’ – read post 1980. The vast majority of my library is the Persephone and Virago type of midcentury women’s writing, with a smattering of classics. I just don’t ‘do’ modern literature. Too often, I find it lacking in substance and style, with far too much focus on experimentation and MA-in-Creative-Writing type heavy-handed overwriting that ruins any attempt to actually tell a story.  It is very rare that I will read a modern novel and be blown away by it. There have been some absolutely brilliant novels produced in the last 26 years, don’t get me wrong; Possession, The Hours, The Secret History, Alias Grace, and Gilead just to mention a few. However, considering the sheer volume of what gets published these days, and what out of that volume gets praised, I do find it very disheartening that the majority of what gets shoved in our faces by publishers and literary types is just plain old dross. Where’s the passion? Where’s the style? Where’s the skill in writing beautifully crafted  yet accessible language that weaves a story which entertains while it educates? At the risk of sounding 90, they don’t write them like they used to. However, once in a while someone manages to produce something marvellous that has me swearing that I will be more open minded about modern literature, and I am pleased to say that Alan Hollinghurst has done just that with The Stranger’s Child

The novel is a multigenerational saga taking us from 1913 to the present day, exploring the rise and fall of two families whose lives are linked through their relationship with Cecil Valance, a boy poet whose premature death in WW1 brought him a fame his talent never truly merited. It’s an intriguing premise, with a complicated and heavily populated narrative that prompts more questions than it gives answers every time the plot moves forward into a new time phase. Much of the pleasure of the novel is in its surprising connections and thoughtful revelations, which makes it difficult to write about without ruining the plot. What I will tell you is that it begins just before WWI, with the visit of Cecil to the home of his Cambridge friend George Sawle, who lives at Two Acres, a suburban villa in countryfied North London. The heir to a large country estate and a baronetcy, Cecil is rich, confident, charming and already a minor success as a poet. Daphne, George’s impressionable teenage sister, is completely awed by him, but unbeknownst to her, Cecil only has eyes for George. On leaving Two Acres, Cecil writes a poem in Daphne’s visitor’s book, which everyone but George reads as a love letter to Daphne. This weekend visit to Two Acres and the poem Cecil leaves behind will prove to change Daphne and the rest of the Sawle family’s lives forever. When Cecil is killed in action, his poem ‘Two Acres’ becomes the anthem of his generation, destined to be studied by schoolchildren for decades to come. Daphne, thwarted in her love for Cecil, marries his younger brother Dudley instead, and gets to live in the grossly unfashionable gothic pile that Cecil should have inherited, but which he now inhabits in the form of a life size marble tomb.

As we fast forward through time, catching glimpses of Daphne and her descendants across the 20th and 21st centuries, we see the fortunes of the intertwined Sawle and Valance families wane dramatically, as Corley leaves Valance hands and Cecil becomes a minor footnote in the history of British literature, his poetry dismissed as sentimental rubbish as the postmodern revisionists arrive on the academic scene. Its central theme, through the exploration of Cecil’s changing literary reputation, is a meditation on memory and myth; of how we rewrite and idealise our pasts, creating a version of the truth that has little basis in fact to suit our own purposes. It is also a chronicle of 20th century British history, charting the rise and fall of the great landed families and their estates, and the burgeoning modern obsession with celebrity, exposés and smut.  In many ways it echoes the traditional country house novel, with every jump forward in time being focused around a house party or gathering of some nature, and there are also overtones of an homage to Brideshead Revisited/The Go Between and its ilk in its middle class characters’ hero-worship of the eccentric Valance family and their imposing family home. What makes it very up to date, however, is in its open discussion of homosexuality, which every male character seems to have dabbled in at one point or another. The mystery surrounding Cecil’s sexuality will prove to be of key importance in the re-and-de-construction of his reputation that takes place in the decades after his death, and it is telling that we begin with two boys having a guilty fumble in a bush but end with a scene of openly gay partners flashing wedding rings, demonstrating the huge strides forward in the acceptance of homosexuality in society over the last century.

It’s a rich and ambitious novel, intelligent and thought provoking, literary and learned, yet without being pompous or turgid. It feels fresh and vibrant, coming at the British literary tradition of exploring class and heritage in a completely innovative way. I loved the notion of using a Rupert Brooke-esque WWI poet and his changing reputation as a vehicle in which to span the changing face of Britain over the past century, and if you want something clever and different that will absorb and intrigue you, I highly recommend giving this a go. I’m still thinking about the characters several days after finishing, and wondering about the ending, which was truly inspired. I have been heartened by The Stranger’s Child; brilliant modern fiction does exist, and now my challenge is to find some more like it!

45 comments

  1. Thanks for this! I agree wholeheartedly feeling that same lack in contemporary writing and that same delight in finding Hollinghurst (even relief) and I am encouraged to find more. As well, I have appreciated the depth of your reviews, and your commitment to your blog and its readers even to someone like me who rarely comments or exchanges a word!

    1. Thanks db, glad you’ve been enjoying the blog – that’s lovely to hear! I hope you will be tempted to comment more often!🙂 Also pleased you enjoy Hollinghurst – I didn’t enjoy The Line of Beauty when I read it before but now I am attempted to revisit as I think I must have missed something!

  2. Needless to say, I agree with you completely about modern fiction; I follow your blog because you like what I like and I very much enjoy rediscovering books through the eyes of a brilliant young Englishwoman with a gift for teaching and writing. It is amusing, isn’t it, that the modern fiction you (and I) have enjoyed – is all set in the past!

    1. Thanks Diana, you’re always so lovely to me!🙂 Yes, this is true!!! Every modern book I love seems to be set in the period when the novels I most enjoy were written! Oh well…I try!

  3. I had a very hard time with this book and reluctantly put it aside. It was particularity difficult because I loved the first few pages. Perhaps at some other time it will have more appeal.

    1. Oh, I am sad about that, but I can see why – the early part in the pre war period was gripping and I would have liked to read more about Daphne and Cecil and what happened to make Daphne marry Dudley. It took me a while to get into the later parts but after a while I was hooked – you have to push through and then you get settled again. I hope you’ll try it again another time.

  4. Hello, I recently found your blog but haven’t commented before. I am desperate to find something to read that’s going to grip me; I’ve abandoned several things over the past few weeks and resorted to old favourites.Luckily, I already have a copy of this and am definitely going to crack on with it today.You’ve inspired me to give it a go.Great review.(I loved the Line of Beauty but read that ages ago.) I love your blog.10/10.Sue

    1. Hi Sue! Lovely to hear from you. I know the feeling – The Stranger’s Child definitely lifted me out of a reading slump! I hope you’ll enjoy it – if you liked The Line of Beauty I’m sure you’ll enjoy this. Good luck with it and thanks for the lovely comments about my blog!

  5. Well – I could have written that first paragraph (though probably not as lucidly as you) as I agree with every word. But as you say, there are some novels that break the mould and this certainly sounds like one of them. Thanks — this is certainly one to look out for.

    1. Glad to hear it, Harriet – I really do think modern novels lack something – there is too much focus on innovation and saying something profound rather than just writing a good story with beautiful language. I don’t understand why it’s so hard! I hope you’ll find a copy of this and enjoy it – it certainly pleased me!

  6. I really liked the sound of this book, and your post has convinced me even more! I was actually disappointed by Possession, I much preferred The Children’s Book but I’ve yet to meet anyone with the same opinion. The Stranger’s Child sounds great though – will be starting it soon!

    1. Great, I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as me! That IS a surprise – I hated The Children’s Book – soooo long and turgid – but adored Possession. Though I think The Children’s Book will merit a re-read at some point – because I wanted it to be Possession 2 I didn’t quite give it the chance it deserved.

      1. I did it the other way round, after reading The Children’s Book, Possession seemed like a light read and wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Maybe I will need to give Possession another chance!

  7. I early chose this in Waterstone’s having read a post of yours saying you loved it, and having enjoyed a previous The Line of Beauty. Sort of wish I had though I am enjoying The Snow Child that I chose with The Song of Achille’s.
    Ps Am reading & writing this whilst at friends in Rivermead, Sevenoaks.

  8. I agree. I walk into a bookshop and see piles of modern novels and never anything I want to read. I did read the new Ian McEwan and liked it . Even the Booker List holds no exciting reads for me. that is why i love your blog and rediscovering authors whom I might never have read. I am half way through the Hollinghurst and really loving it, Your blog is such a delight.

    1. I’m glad you liked the latest Ian McEwan, Enid – I’ve been thinking about reading it but haven’t had the time. I’m delighted that you’re enjoying The Stranger’s Child so much as well – it must be even better now you’ve met Alan Hollinghurst himself! Thank you Enid – you are a delight to have as a reader!🙂

  9. I do feel like a lot of modern novels are less interested in telling a good story about good characters than in being fancy and experimental. Which is not what I read for. Your enthusiasm for Alan Hollinghurst is making me want to try him! I will do soon — I’m trying to clear out the library books on my Nook first, but then I will be ready for a fresh batch of books.😀

    1. I quite agree Jenny! I think you’d really like this – it’s got all your favourite things in it! Crazy people and crazy houses and dead people. You’ll love it!🙂

  10. I think I might give this one a try…I’d heard it was quite good and your recommendation makes me want to go for it🙂

    Happy end of September, Rachel! Now you’re really in the thick of things, teaching wise😉

  11. I agree with your comments on modern literature. It’s a bit like when singers add so many improvised embellishments into their songs that you get a bit unsure if all they are trying to do is cover up for a perhaps not so great melody.

  12. It’s always nice to know that we are not alone. Although, I think, we also do sometimes like to think we battle on, fighting under old, forgotten banners. This books sounds as if it is something I would enjoy. Thank you for such an informative, well-written and enthusiastic review. Of my own novel, A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts, I hope it is, at least, equally well-written and entertaining.

  13. Going slightly off-topic, but I notice that you are currently reading Vita Sackville-West. That being the case, you might enjoy this new radio comedy about the Bloomsbury set, in which she appears as “Vera Sackcloth-Vest”. Sounds like just the thing for Simon Thomas too, should he happen to see this.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01mx2sp
    I didn’t find it laugh out loud funny, but it was diverting nonetheless.

  14. I agree with you about ‘MA in Creative Writing’ type novels. Most of the contemporary novels I read seem to be by American women writers. Voices seem fresher somehow.

  15. So glad I’m not the only one who finds modern novels severely lacking! I tend to be constantly veering to 20th century literature – so it’s nice to hear about something new that isn’t bad!

  16. Hello, what a lovely, thoughtful review – I’ve added it to my “to read” list! I always enjoy your comments, even when I haven’t read the book, but I don’t think I’ve ever commented before (I’m a terrible lurker, all the more shameful since I have a blog of my own).

    I think our tastes are quite similar (my first thought on reading I Capture The Castle, way before I found this blog, was how much I wished I’d read it as a teenager) so I was wondering – have you read much Michael Frayn? Spies is one of my favourites – and I think it would be a great book to teach, incidentally – and I’ve just started on A Landing On The Sun. I also just finished J. L Carr’s A Month In The Country, which you also might like…

    Hope term is going swimmingly, it sounds like you’re doing wonderfully well!

    1. Thanks so much Alexandra, and welcome!
      I have never read any Michael Frayn and I’ve been meaning to read the J L Carr for ages, so thank you so much for the recommendations – I will track them down!
      Thank you very much – it’s all going along pretty well and I’m really enjoying it!

  17. I meant to say – so glad you didn’t like The Children’s Book either. I took that on honeymoon (without putting much thought into the decision, which was an error) and HATED it! I mean, the honeymoon was blissful, obviously, but the book was very disappointing. I haven’t been able to force myself to try Possession, but maybe I should..

    1. Oh what an awful honeymoon book! It totally didn’t live up to my expectations but I think a lot of people felt the same way. Possession is so much better – it’s one of my favourites. You must try it!

  18. Hi Rachel! I so understand what you mean about contemporary books. There are truly good and great ones but you have to be patient enough to dig through the not-so-good ones as well to find the gems.

    I love how you described this one by Hollinghurst and definitely putting it on my wishlist.

    1. Hi Claire! I’m so pleased we’re on the same page. Finding a good book in modern publishing seems to be akin to finding a needle in a haystack, more often than not!

      I’m sure you’d enjoy this, Claire!

  19. It is so good to find out there are other people besides me who don’t like the forced “originality” of what is called “modern literature”! Your literary taste is quite similar to mine. Greetings from a brazilian fellow reader! Or maybe I should say “re-reader”, because it’s what I do most. Sometimes I try new authors, but very often I give up after page 30, bored to death. I suppose new authors worry too much about their convoluted “stylistic problems” and forget about just telling the story elegantly and simply.
    Love your blog!

    1. It’s fantastic that we’re not alone, isn’t it Priscilla? Some people do still value the good old fashioned written word! Hello to you and thank you for coming by – you’re the first Brazilian I’ve had comment so it’s wonderful to have your perspective!

  20. I share so many of your feelings about modern literature – I too get frustrated by bland, formulaic writing, which seems to originate from the structure learning of creative writing degrees. Equally, I find Hollinghurst a refreshing change of pace from much of the modern literature that I read. He’s regularly compared to Henry James, one of his professed idols, and it’s easy to see why (though I’m not sure everyone would rate them in the same class).

    I’ve read a few Hollinghurst novels, and I can throroughly recommend them all (The Stranger’s Child, The Line of Beauty, and The Swimming Pool Library).

    But don’t be too hard on modern lit. either – they may not write them like they used to, but literature is an evolving art and there’s a lot of merit in the newer wave (as you yourself identify).

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Hi Matthew, thanks for coming by! Glad you enjoy Hollinghurst – I’m intrigued by the comparison to James as I have never got along with him, but am planning on revisiting one day so maybe as I age I will find him more my cup of tea!

      Oh yes, of course – one just has to be choosy to find the treasures in amongst the crap!!

      Thanks!🙂

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