September 2011

Margaret Howie


The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

The newest book from Booker winner Alan Hollinghurst opens with sunshine, and ends in ashes. He shows us summertime, curling smoke, orgasms, things that are weightless and momentary, and then traces their silent impressions through time. This novel is concerned with how our artefacts of memory are pressured by insubstantial transformative forces as desire and weather, fashion and commerce. While backdrop is made up of weighty items, from the battlegrounds of WWI to large country houses, the public school system, and the citadel of the literary canon, theyíre all shown to be susceptible to these momentary flickers of impulse and heat, as are these characters that live the breadth of the twentieth century.

The Strangerís Child covers a hundred year span, but it doesnít sprawl over it. Instead Hollinghurst makes incisions in time, exposing five slices from the narrative. Each section is tied to the central figure, a young poet called Cecil Valance. Valanceís life is the raw fuel of the book, his brief life and sudden death the event that pushes the rest of the characters along in dips and ripples of time. Whether they realise it or not, they live in part in Cecilís wake, and in this way the author builds us a picture of a man we meet only in the first chapter. In a book that takes on the pitfalls of biography, what is left out becomes as revealing as what is included.

Cecil is a Rupert Brooke-like figure, who is posh, charismatic, overly assured of his talent and incapable of keeping it in his pants. In one of the novelís sharp ironies, he only becomes a celebrated writer in his death, through the manipulations of history and patriotism, and later the fascination with his sexual identity. None of this could be foreseen at the outset of the book, where he steps into the summer idyll of a sixteen year old girl living in 1913. Daphne Sawle is reclining in a hammock under one of the bright summer suns of the new century, reading poetry and struggling to concentrate. At the prospect of her older brotherís visit, and his guest, Valance, sheís mixed up with imprecise feelings of romance, curiosity and status. Even though Cecil proves to be more interested in assignations with her older brother, Daphne turns out to be intriguing enough for him to grapple with for a kiss in the dark. It leaves Daphne further bewildered, and sets off the events for the rest of the book.

It is at the Sawleís home, Two Acres, that Cecil creates the ripples that will affect Daphne for the rest of her life. His visit is her coming of age, when she realises that her modest upper-middle-class house with its gauche name is no match for the Valance family spread, Corley Court. What she doesnít realise is that the poem Cecil writes for her, also named "Two Acres," will be renowned as a totem of Englishness after the war that kills the poet, or that Corley Court will one day become her home.

By the second chapter, weíve jumped to Corley Court, after the war. Cecilís life is over, and Daphne has married his brother and had two children. Shades of Brideshead appear in the description of a torrid party that takes over the estate, but Daphne is no Julia Flyte. Marrying the brother of a beloved lost in the Great War was not uncommon, and Daphne has bobbed along with the ebb of history, somewhat confused and regularly drunk. There is a virtuoso piece of writing when the point of view is handed over to her young son Wilfrid, who runs through the enormous house unaware of the adult games going on around him. Wilfridís striking feeling of being left out would be familiar to Paul, who we meet as the book drops us into the less swinging sixties of middle England. Paul, like many of the characters, is fascinated by literary memoir, which will be what draws him into the Cecil Valance circle. Paul has an absent father, too, and like Cecil heís gay and finds his partners in secret. †

Corley Court is a boyís boarding school by the sixties, when we revisit it for the novelís third section. Itís still a location for secret sexual arrangements, this time with Paul, a young bank teller, and a teacher there called Peter Rowe. Paul is further down on the class ladder than the Sawles and their descendents are, though by this mid-point in the century his bank manager boss is connected to the family through marriage. Paul seizes on Daphne when he meets her at an agonising garden party later on, receiving his first exposure to the radius of Cecilís inner circle. He has ambitions to write a book about the poet, in between searching through magazine listings for coded classified ads for hook-ups and getting his leg over with the more capable Peter.

By the fourth section, Paul is experiencing the agonies of the biographer. His duplicitous and petty nature becomes clear -- his concern about his landlady trying to have influence over his work is hilariously bitter -- he is attractive and revolting, useless but inevitably working towards a new life history of Valance. Paul is most doggedly trying to pin down the details of Cecilís covert sex life, in the face of resistance and indifference to his charmless approaches.

What is interesting about all the couplings in The Strangerís Child is that a quick tumble in the hedgerow develops its own type of immortality, like a much-anthologised poem. When Paul doggedly interviews Daphneís brother George and gets felt up, itís by a hand that once groped Cecil -- a stretch of lasciviousness across time. But itís no artefact that Paul has the skills to put to use, itís just fuel for another bout of the gloriously rendered social unease and embarrassment that occur in this novel.

Sex in The Strangerís Child isnít erotic, surfaces are, and as the butchered faÁade of Corley Court eventually acquires its own respectability, the fumbled couplings of the characters reveal themselves to be the turning points of their secret memories and public lives. That the closing bonfire is lit out of misguided practicality is an echo of this theme, that what drives people in history is as much bumbling wrongheadedness as intention. Watching the flames lick up into the sky the viewer sees the loss that best conveniences them, not necessarily one they have genuinely undertaken. †

It is one of the poignant reversals of expectation in the beautifully-written book, where the things of substance are mere trophies and the dirty secrets and motivations that seem lost to the historian manage to sustain themselves, revealed at last even in the ashes of old books. Looking at Cecilís memorial, his old lovers complain that the artist ďgot the hands wrong,Ē a subtle undermining of the providence of recorded fact. Those hands which wrote a famous poem and were laid upon several instances of willing flesh are still felt, far beyond his tomb, as long as people attempt to nail down their understanding of the past.

The Strangerís Child by Alan Hollinghurst
ISBN: 0307272761
448 Pages