COULD THIS REALLY have been, as the back cover proclaims, a "#1 best seller" in England? What, we get Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey while in the U.K. novels as elegant, subtle, and powerful as this outsell, at least for a week or two, every other rival? Are they really that much smarter than us?
Hollinghurst's first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library, was a masterpiece, and the three that followed were never less than excellent; this latest one at least equals the first. Like The Swimming-Pool Library, it incorporates history (and again, it's an occluded, fragmentary history) without sacrificing nuanced novelistic attention to physical detail or psychological acuity.
The first of five sections is set in 1913 (perhaps 1914, but before war was declared), and presents a weekend visit by Cecil Vallance, a Rupert Brooke-like dazzling undergraduate poet, to the home of his friend and lover George Sawle; George's sister Daphne falls hard for Cecil, and he writes in her autograph book a "Grantchester"-ish poem for her--or is it for George?
Next section: it is 1926, on the eve of the General Strike, and we are at Corley Court, Cecil's family home, a Victorian neo-Gothic pile like Hetton Abbey in A Handful of Dust, as it undergoes a drastic modernization at the hands of its current master, Cecil's younger brother Dudley-- for Cecil died in the war, is now entombed in the family chapel, and has become lionized in a Brooke-ish way. Dudley and Daphne...yes, the very same...have two children but the marriage is on the rocks, and collapses utterly after another weekend party.
One of the delights of The Stranger's Child is that we have to keep alert through the opening pages of each new section to see what era we are now in and how the constellation of characters has realigned. By the third section, we are about at 1967, the year homosexual acts between consenting adults were decriminalized in England. We begin with two new characters: Paul Bryant, a bank clerk, and Peter Rowe, a new faculty member at Corley Court, which, yes, has become a school. Paul has to follow his boss home on an errand one afternoon and meets his boss's wife's mother, an eccentric old woman named Mrs Jacobs, who is--wait for it--our old friend Daphne. Paul begins an affair with Peter, and both become fascinated with the family Vallance, so much so that...
...thirteen years later, Paul is hoping to make his mark as a man of letters with a biography of Cecil, and so is tracking down Daphne et al. looking for revelations. By now, biographers can choose to reveal their subjects' homosexuality (Michael Holroyd on Lytton Strachey) or be a bit cagy about it (Jon Stallworthy on Wilfred Owen). Paul suspects that Cecil was gay or bisexual, but lacks definitive proof. George imparts some astonishing revelations, but wobbly as his memory is, can he be trusted?
The book's cover is a painting by Eugene Speicher of an elegant young man seated at a table, two-thirds of his face wiped away, just hints of his features left. Just that way, figures from the past have a startling clarity in some respects while remaining an unreadable blank in others. Is the world of the novel ever going to know Cecil as well as we its readers do?
In the relatively brief final section, set more or less in our present, Peter has just died, and we are at an event paying tribute to him, our point of view that of a rare book dealer (Peter was a cherished customer). Paul is one of the speakers--he is now a literary star of Holroydean proportions, having set off a firestorm of controversy with his Cecil biography. Rob, our book dealer, has unknowingly sat down beside Daphne's grand-daughter, now an academic, who finds Rob surprisingly interested in hearing about her family. Rob returns to work to find a box has materialized, from an about-to-demolished retirement home in the Sawles' old neighborhood, containing rare manuscript materials highly germane to the lives of the very people he has just been learning about. He dashes out to see what else might be salvaged, but...the cupboard is bare and a bonfire is going strong in the yard.
Hollinghurst gets the epic sweep--but mercifully he gets it not by drifts of accumulated scenes and plotting but by focusing on a few weekends, a few fatal confrontations, which he can conjure up with the moment-to-moment details (ashtrays, drinks, photo albums) of the classic short English novel. Each section has the patina of the best fiction of a particular era, part one slightly Forster-ish, part two like the pre-Dance novels of Anthony Powell, part three reminiscent of Angus Wilson, part five sounding quite like the next master in that line, Alan Hollinghurst himself.