I don’t think I’ve ever read such an intricately patterned novel about generations of gay men. The Stranger’s Child moves from the beginning of the twentieth century to the beginning of the twenty first. Divided into five sections, Alan Hollinghurst’s narrative each time focuses on a different generation. At first the stories seem disparate, but eventually the connections become clear. Some characters reappear, grown old and lame as time has passed. Other characters are new, yet attached somehow to the heart of the book.
The central core is Cecil T. Valence, an Oxford man from a well-to-do family, a charismatic persona, an erstwhile poet, and a soldier unfortunately killed by a sniper during World War I. The reader meets Cecil in his young prime, and then follows his ensuing fame along any number of false trails and imagined stories about his short life. Nothing is quite what it seems, although Cecil’s enthusiasm for other men is clearly rendered. What is so smart about this novel, however, it not its blatancy but rather its subtlety. Where Cecil places a discreet hand, or flirts surreptitiously, and remains closeted to his family, male characters in the later chapters of The Stranger’s Child go to gay bars, speak openly of their affections, and even marry each other. Within its generations, the novel discreetly traces the course of gay life in England for the past hundred years.
The narrative also raises thoughtful questions about the nature of biography. Several of the men and women in The Stranger’s Child are writers, and several are biographers. Mysteries about Cecil’s brief life abound, and part of the book’s puzzle is to untangle those unknowns. Sometimes the reader knows more about the past than the probing characters do, and sometimes the reader is equally mystified. Letters are lost, found, and lost again. Variant forms of Cecil’s poems appear and disappear. Some memories of him become fixed, repeated almost word for word for more than half a century. Other recollections are tacitly unspoken, or completely stifled by personal propriety and public will. Hollinghurst loves to get inside the minds of the various memoirists and biographers who appear in the novel, probing their better instincts, exposing their own insecurities, and laying bare their tendencies to embellish or embroider or even understate the truth.
When I finished The Stranger’s Child, I instantly wanted to have a conversation with someone who writes biography. This novel, it seems to me, strikes at the heart of biographical conundrums. What is true, and what is filtered truth, and how can a reader ever accurately know which is which? At the same time, I thought of gay men I have known, some horrendously protective of their double lives, others openly comfortable with their obvious sexuality. I wanted to talk to them about the book, too, to see if they thought its complexities were as convincing as I did. Would they agree that the beginning of The Stranger’s Child reminded them of E. M. Forster’s Maurice, while the ending sounds more like a British Armistead Maupin?
Needless to say, I definitely recommend Hollinghurst’s most recent novel. He writes well, with an intricate Jamesian style that fits its dual themes. He also writes thoughtfully, raising issues that resound both literarily and psychologically. Anyone who enjoys thinking about literary endeavors and/or gendered life experiences will thoroughly enjoy this book. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Hollinghurst: The Line of Beauty; The Swimming-Pool Library; The Spell; The Folding Star.