The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

The fallibility of memory and homosexuality are key themes in this beautifully written and atmospheric novel by Alan Hollinghurst in which the reader is challenged to fill in the gaps in the story. The Stranger’s Child will linger in your memory for a long time after you have finished reading it.

In an interview with Ramona Koval for the Bookshow on ABC Radio National, Alan Hollinghurst discusses how he sets out to involve the reader’s imagination in the process of reading The Stranger’s Child by making the reader do “rather more work, imagining what’s happened and working out what’s happened in the gaps”.

Beautifully written with a clever, intricate structure, The Stranger’s Child opens in 1913 when Cecil Valence, a young poet, is staying with his university friend George Sawle at the Sawle family home, ‘Two Acres’. What happens during the course of this visit has repercussions for most of the other characters in this novel across most of the remainder of the twentieth century seen through the prisms of the 1920s, 1960s, 1980s, until the novel concludes in 2008.

Homosexuality is certainly a theme in The Stranger’s Child and society’s changing views of homosexual relationships across that time period are shown in the novel, but there are  other equally important themes in this work such as memory: “He was asking for memories, too young himself to know that memories were only memories of memories. It was diamond-rare to remember something fresh”.

Unreliable or faillible memory plays a role in unreliable and fallible biography and memoirs and that’s another theme in The Stranger’s Child.

“Daphne was supposed to have a good memory, and this reputation sustained her uneasily in the face of thousancds of things she couldn’t remember. People had been amazed by what she’d dredged up for her book, but much of it, as she’d nearly admitted to Paul Bryan, was – not fiction, which one really musn’t do about actual people, but a sort of poetical reconstruction”.

We are also challenged by different characters having different perspectives on the same events. For example, while visiting Two Acres, Valence writes a poem which the reader believes is inspired by his relationship with George Sawle although George’s sister,  in whose autograph book verses from the poem were written, believes the poem was intended for her. Jonah, a servant in the Sawle house, whose duties include looking after Valence and who finds fragments of verse in a bin in Valence’s room, has yet another perspective. Later, there are even more perspectives from Valence’s biographer, Paul Bryant, and from a number of minor characters.

Through all of these perspectives, and across the generations, Cecil Valence continues to have some influence in the lives ot others. That too can be discussed as a central theme.

And, of course,  there is the role of the reader who is challenged to work out which elements of each of the characters can be relied on. Should we believe Daphne even if “What she felt then; and what she felt now; and what she felt now about what she felt then; it wasn’t remotely easy to say”? Should we trust Paul Bryant even if, perhaps, we don’t like him very much? Should we believe George Sawle whose  memory, on the surface, may be the least reliable of all or is memory or is there something even more signficant informing and shaping memory, perhaps even revealing truth that remains hidden to memory itself?

The more that we mull over who meant what, and who meant what to whom, and the extent to which biography and memoir are reliable or fallible, the more it becomes apparent what a really good novel The Stranger’s Child is. In mood, it is reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s Atonement and — although Hollingsworth in the interview with ABC Radio National doesn’t seem to care for comparisons with Evelyn Waugh —  it also reminded me of Brideshead Revisited.

This is the best book I’ve read so far this year. I thoroughly recommend it.