Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Review: The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

During the section of The Stranger's Child that takes place in the 1960s, a young gay character called Paul stages his own tiny sexual rebellion by covertly reading a novel with gay themes in it. Unfortunately, since he was living in the 1960s, the novel he read was by Angus Wilson.

Wilson wrote mainly in the 50s and 60s, and the books he produced were (I think) far more remarkable for their relative openness about the contemporary gay lifestyle than for their literary merit. They're perfectly fine - I had to read one for my MA course - but I don't think they're any more than that. There is a marked absence of either literary fireworks or (which might have mattered more to Paul) particularly salacious scenes - in fact, most of Wilson's gay characters seem to spend a large portion of their time wandering moodily around gardens. Poor Paul. If only he'd had an Alan Hollinghurst novel, he would have ended up considerably more amused.

In fact, all readers in 2012 should bless the fact that we are part of a world where Alan Hollinghurst writes books. If Angus Wilson was a gay man who happened to write novels, Hollinghurst is an absolutely fantastic writer who just so happens to be gay. Sure, Hollinghurst is very interested in gay experiences. The Stranger's Child is essentially a tour through 80 years of gay literary history, a version of the family inheritence novel with very little actual sharing of genes involved. Hollinghurst's universe, in fact, has such an abundance of gay characters that at times you begin to wonder how his human race ever managed to reproduce itself. This is slightly odd but, I think, excusable - after all, so many Great English Novels of the past have pretended that no one is gay that it's about time someone took a little pro-homosexual revenge.

Indeed, Hollinghurst is responding to all those monumentally certain Great English Novels, pointing out that often it's the things that seem most obvious that turn out to have an entirely different explanation. For Hollinghurst, of course, those hidden truths tend to be along the lines of '... but ACTUALLY all the men were sleeping together!', and to back this up he does a very nice job of unearthing the gay literature of each era and weaving it into his action. In 1913 the characters are given speeches from Tennyson to read; in 1926 they party like Evelyn Waugh's directing the action; and in 1967, as I said, the poor things get stuck in a distinctly Angus Wilson-esque countryside farce.

The starting point for all these shenanigans is as follows. In 1913, youthful poet Cecil Valance comes to visit his 'friend' George and George's family for the weekend. While Cecil's there he writes a romantic country-house poem which he then presents to George's little sister Daphne. Most people in the house, including Daphne, assume that it's about her. Of course, the reader knows that it's really to George, with whom Cecil's spent the weekend rolling in bushes and hammocks and so on. Because he's gay. Because everyone is gay in this novel except Daphne, who is magnificently oblivious. With that first fundamental misunderstanding in place, the rest of the novel is a dash through the twentieth century, as successive generations try to understand What It All Meant and succeed only in getting more and more confused and wrong.

I was completely bowled over by Hollinghurst's writing style. He writes gorgeously, with a beautifully assured tone that's backed up by some extraordinarily well-chosen details. I think he's got a rare talent for conveying time and place and, which is even more valuable, an ability to create characters that don't make you want to beat them over the head with a spade. I do think, though, that the structure of The Stranger's Child may not have done him justice. I felt, especially as I got towards the end of it, that Hollinghurst was the victim of his own ambition. Because the important event (Cecil's poem) takes place so early in the novel, everything that follows feels slightly anticlimactic, like we're moving away from where we want to be and who we want to be with. That's obviously exactly the effect Hollinghurst intended, but knowing that didn't make it feel any less damp-squibby. That enormous time-range also doesn't quite work. I could have happily read a 500-page novel about Cecil, George and Daphne in 1913, but the fact that I had to read 200 pages of awful Paul the budding literary biographer as he alienated everyone and behaved like an idiot made me less delighted. And worse, every time I felt like I was getting to know one set of characters the novel picked me up, hurled me forwards twenty years and forced me to meet an entirely new group. It was like the first day of work five times in a row, and it left me feeling exhausted.

In a way, this is exciting, because it means that there are better books by Alan Hollinghurst out there that I get to read next. But I really wish he hadn't been so over-eager with this one. A simpler premise would have made The Stranger's Child amazing, whereas as it stands it's just really good. Hollinghurst's an absolutely stellar writing talent who just got a bit clever-clever with his plot. I nearly gave this one 4.5 stars from sheer delight at the words on its pages, but in the end I think I'm sticking with

4 stars.

Which is still fairly awesome.

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