Everyone seems to be reading Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child at the moment, so I thought I had better join in and read it – and I’m so glad I did. I read a review which said the book was slow and dull in the second half – it was wrong; I couldn’t put it down. It starts off with a visit by a poet, Cecil Valance, to his friend George Sawle’s family home, ‘Two Acres’, and it’s clear from the start that this visit is the event on which the rest of the book pivots; in particular, a poem written by Cecil during that time. As George’s sister, Daphne, awaits the arrival of her brother and his guest, she anticipates future memories of the weekend in a way which foreshadows the rest of the novel. As the visit unfolds, I felt as though I was reading a version of Brideshead Revisited, or perhaps Atonement, but the novel goes on to do some remarkable things with memory and biography. The Sawle and Valance family become entwined through a variety of relationships, personal and literary, throughout the twentieth century, but despite the reader being shown events at first hand, there are many events left out, that the reader must guess at and conjecture. This is both frustrating and tantalisingly enjoyable, and is an intrinsic part of the novel’s structure.
Without wishing to give away too much of the plot, there are characters who wish to piece together the life and relationships of Cecil Valance (a ‘second-rate Rupert Brooke’), for personal reasons, and, more pressingly, to write a biography of him. These characters track down friends and relatives, including Daphne and George, to find out more. The events over many years are overshadowed by the echoes of the past, but what Hollinghurst excels in demonstrating is the subtly shifting landscapes of memory over time: how the truth is gradually elided and becomes something else altogether. The title of the novel is taken from Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’:
Till from the garden and the wild
A fresh association blow,
And year by year the landscape grow
Familiar to the stranger’s child.
This seems to me to sum up the novel in many ways; Hollinghurst himself said that “the music of the words is absolutely wonderful, marvellously sad and consoling all at once. It fitted exactly with an idea I wanted to pursue in the book about the unknowability of the future”. The Stranger’s Child is also about the unknowability of the past, of course, and it is in this respect that I found it particularly interesting. So much in the novel is hidden, or half-hidden, because of failing memory (or wilful misremembering), taboos, creative license: it all goes to prove that we cannot ‘know’ a writer, no matter how many biographies are written. A particularly telling episode near the end of the novel shows someone using digital technology to ‘show’ dead writers reading their own poems, which is an excellent metaphor for the revoicing of the dead which is so often carried out by critics and biographers. The ending may seem frustratingly open to some readers, but for me, it made me smile, because it seems to open up a future vista of possibilities of the unknown and the unknowable: a more concrete ending, with more definite answers, would ruin the delicate balance between fact and fiction which is the biographer’s talent.
This is my favourite kind of book: a novel about literature. It plays with the things that literary critics struggle with: the relation between the writer and his work; the need for ‘context’; the unknown aspects of a writer’s life; and, most of all, our own need to know, to feel in possession of all the facts, as if that will somehow make the literature more real, more important. (The irony of this, for this novel, is that there is more than a hint that the poems aren’t even that good – a little jingoistic, perhaps; Valance’s best poems seem to be lost forever).