For me, and for many fans of literary fiction, particularly the gay ones, a new Alan Hollinghurst novel is an event. From 1988, when his first book The Swimming Pool Library was published to great acclaim, to 2004 when he won the Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty, Hollinghurst became known as one of Britain’s great novelists and arguably the greatest gay novelist writing in English today. He has said that he doesn’t see himself as a “gay writer,” just as a “writer,” but for good or ill, Hollinghurst will always be associated with his gayness, mostly because gayness is what he writes about.
Yes, he writes about class, manners, and the lives of artists and teachers, but these all revolve around what is essentially an examination of what it means to be gay in England in the 20th century. And in The Stranger’s Child (Knopf), his first book since winning the Booker, Hollinghurst literally tackles the entire 20th century. It’s his most ambitious (and longest) book, and while I didn’t find it as profoundly unsettling as his beautifully caustic critique of Thatcherism that was The Line of Beauty, The Stranger’s Child is enveloping, funny, wise, and features, as is expected from Hollinghurst, sentences of such art and precision as to be occasionally breathtaking. It’s a great novel.
The book is broken into five sections that span 95 years. In 1913, the Sawle family is visited by the middle son George’s college friend (and lover), the charismatic aristocrat and poet Cecil Valance. As a parting gift for Daphne, George’s 16-year-old sister, Cecil writes a poem named after the Sawle’s house, “Two Acres,” that becomes one of the best known of the 20th century. In 1926, we move to Corley, the Valance estate, where we find that Daphne has married Cecil’s younger brother Dudley, and that Cecil was killed during World War I. The Sawle and Valance families are together for an awkward, drunken, adulterous weekend during which everyone is being interviewed for a book about Cecil. In 1967, we meet two young gay men – Peter, a teacher at the boarding school that Corley has turned into, and Paul, an easily impressed bank teller who works for Daphne’s son-in-law – whose romance begins at Daphne’s 70th birthday. In 1979, Paul is doing research on a biography of Cecil, doing his best to manipulate the surviving cast of 1913 and 1926 to admit to scandal. Finally, in 2008, Peter’s memorial service serves as an epilogue of sorts and propels Cecil’s legend into the future.
Ostensibly, The Stranger’s Child is about how Daphne’s life is intertwined with the legacy of Cecil Valance, which is in many ways a nostalgia for Victoriana and English supremacy. But this is also the vehicle for Hollinghurst to examine the changing mores of homosexuality in the 20th century; from the unspoken love of Oxford rubs in 1913 to mixed-race civil marriages in 2008. (Spotting the white Brit sexualizing a black body in Hollinghurst’s novels is like spotting Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos. Just wait for it.) That Daphne never seems to figure out that she is at the center of this big gay drama is played as rather amusing irony, but as her naïveté becomes cluelessness, and as the gay men around her go from secretly groping each other to not-so-secretly groping for Cecil’s secrets, the characters in The Stranger’s Child become less sympathetic. I think it’s pretty clear which side gay readers and straight readers will take in this conflict between the need to know the gayness of history and the desire to learn the simpler story that has long been told. That Hollinghurst himself doesn’t seem to take a side is just one of the many reasons The Stranger’s Child is so rich and so worth poring over and pondering.