Eric's Reviews > The Stranger's Child

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
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's review
Jan 23, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: ficciones, great-war, shouldreread
Read in October, 2011

In a perverse delectation of delay I waited until the US release of The Stranger’s Child. In spells of impatience I would Google the UK reviews, and read them in a skimming, self-protective way, veering from spoilers, and keeping mostly to the opening and closing paragraphs of generalized acclaim. From review to review the memes were Brideshead Revisited (there’s an estate), Atonement (there’s a naïve young girl), and the extent of the novel’s ambition. I can say nothing about the alleged Waugh or McEwan parallels—but this novel is mightily ambitious. Hollinghurst hasn’t worked on this scale before. Even to the last pages he’s adding panels, drafting new figures and applying new glazes to the familiar colors of seemingly finished ones. The valid dissent—made best by Daniel Mendelsohn in the latest New York Review of Books—that the novel is decorous and undersexed and faintly reactionary—that Hollinghurst’s antiquarianism is now detached from, and no longer strictly in service of, his subversion—shouldn’t distract us from the technical expansion he has made, the enormous canvas he has filled.

Hollinghurst’s first two novels, The Swimming-Pool Library (1988) and The Folding Star (1994), are contemporary benchmarks of the lyrical first-person—lush, atmospheric, and superbly modulated. The voice of Edward Manners in particular, narrator of The Folding Star, has a resonance, a reach, a verbal roominess that at times feels Humbert-like (his sexual obsession also Humbert-like). In The Spell (1997) Hollinghurst tried the lofty third person and an interwoven ensemble. I think I like The Spell more than most people—the style has a very bracing epigrammatic nip—but I did have some trouble distinguishing the four puppet-like principals, as they hopped in and out of each other’s beds. The novel seems a crude prototype of the masterfully organized The Line of Beauty, the members of that novel’s numerous cast (except Catherine) ample and finished and shown in the “full richness of their relation” (a Jamesian phrase I’m just making up as I type). I remember thinking: where does he go next? Well, he goes bigger. He doubles the number of characters, surveys England and its literary/sexual manners from 1913 to 2008, and mounts to a loftiness of narration just below that of the historian, while retaining all the domestic intimacy of a novelist of manners.

Hollinghurst reconciles the novelist and the historian, where their respective narrative styles of disclosure and insinuation conflict, in an episodic, even fragmentary structure, telling us how Things Change by showing us two families, and their lovers and servants and stalking biographers, as they live—heedlessly and free of portent—at widely spaced points in the twentieth century. These perches of alighting are the Georgian twilight of 1913, when gardens still spoke Tennyson; the voguish cynicism of 1926, grand rooms in Victorian piles “boxed in” the save on heating and hung with quasi-Cubist portraits, and whiskey and laughter in their mouths, and “archly suspicious” Stracheyesque superciliousness on their faces; a sleepy rural town in 1967, a landscape perhaps autobiographically dear to Hollinghurst, one of yearning and loneliness and cherished film stills of shirtless male stars; 1980, rain, machinations, rummaging in old memories; and 2008, where the dark strong room that once hid the gay love letters of 1913 is searched by the fitful light of an iPhone screen. I saw (heard?) Hollinghurst read last week. When asked from the audience about his historical research for the book, he replied that he kept research to a minimum—he wanted no frames or overtures, no cheesy inartistic portent, and simply wished to “plunge” the reader into the new strange place not knowing what year it was, or if they knew the people suddenly talking, and if not what relation these new people might have to the characters they did already know. The wars are fought, the headlines screech, the empire crumbles, the revelations shock…but off-stage. It is pertinent that Hollinghurst has translated Racine; he keeps the classical unities.

So…The Stranger’s Child is ambitious. But does he pull it off? I think so. And it comforts me to think that the boring parts are just rough models for the Proustian mega-novel he’ll drop on us in 2020. Hollinghurst also said after the grueling labor of The Line of Beauty, he started to write short stories, but the four or five he managed soon began to “twitch together” into this novel. It’s really up to each reader to decide which episode is the most accomplished, and which the weak link. James Wood, in The New Yorker, raves about the third, the 1967, which bored me, even as I appreciated its thematic centrality. 1967 introduced new characters who never became quite as compelling as the Valances and the Sawles, the original two families. My own preference for the 1913 and 1926 sections in conjunction (together they take up a little less than half of the novel) perhaps points to my suspicion that, like The Spell, The Stranger’s Child is a transitional work. Those ante- and immediately post-bellum episodes blew my mind, with their subtlety and sad wit, and each character’s lifelike blend of alteration and continuity—and recall that The Line of Beauty really only manages a single time shift, 1983 to 1986, and that among a smallish stable of characters. Where does he go next?

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02/22/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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message 1: by Geoff (new)

Geoff Hey Eric, if I'm going to read Hollinghurst, what's a good place to start? The Line of Beauty or The Folding Star?

Eric Hmmm...The Folding Star I think...Hollinghurst's narrators are lonely, spectatorial lyricists, and Edward Manners is the best of them; don't neglect The Spell, though, an ensemble sex comedy/nightmare.

Eric That he has a new novel, and that I now have a copy, are facts that haven't sunk in yet. So excited.

Steve I hope to start this title next month. Eric, I am looking forward to your review.

Kate Great review. Loved the novel too.

Jessica And it comforts me to think that the boring parts are just rough models for the Proustian mega-novel he’ll drop on us in 2020.

Let's hope!

While this novel never really came together for me in a personal and emotional way, I was blown away by the force of Hollingsworth's abilities... sort of how I feel about Woolf, actually. Gotta think a little more about my rating and review, but I did like this -- though not nearly as much as The Line of Beauty. I seem to have a hard time with Hollingsworth's (to me) unsympathetic protagonists, which was why I just couldn't get into The Swimming Pool Library or The Folding Star. Nick Guest was endearing, but he tends to write these guys who are pretty hard to like -- very intentionally, here. I hate realizing this about myself, because it makes me feel like a middle-school girl, but I guess I need to like my main character? Man, that's so lame. It was one of the problems I had in here, though, more generally: he kept changing the perspective just when you'd get attached to someone, and actually I liked them all except Paul Bryant and then had that feeling of being stuck at a party talking forever to the person who interested me least... which I guess was the point, sort of....

Not sure yet about my rating or about my review. Enjoyed reading yours though in any case! Hollingsworth is incredible; that much I'm sure on, whatever my personal little reaction may be.

message 7: by Eric (last edited Jan 02, 2012 10:31PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Eric I hate realizing this about myself, because it makes me feel like a middle-school girl, but I guess I need to like my main character? Man, that's so lame.

You feel like a middle-school girl, but I'm at the other extreme, and feel like a haggard creep or surfeited wastrel for sympathizing as I do with the narrators of The Swimming Pool Library and The Folding Star. I'm not as narcissistic as Beckwith or besotted with a 14-year old boy like Manners--but their solitude, their scheming, their alternately lyrical and squalid solipsism reasonate with me.

This is a hard book to rate and review. I agree with you about it not quite coming together. I thought the final section was very effective and moving--and, even before that, the glimpses of elderly drink-addled Daphne, struggling to recall adult years during which she'd been "more or less tight" all the time--but the intervening longueurs of Paul Bryant were too distruptive. Bryant needed to be a fascinating and enriching change of perspective...but goddamn, he was boring. The 1926 section, "Revel," is what I cherish about this book.

message 8: by Jessica (last edited Jan 03, 2012 07:30PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jessica Oh I loved Daphne throughout the whole thing! Such a great character and what a nuanced and compelling and believable portrait of a woman at different stages of her life... It's really insane how amazingly well he can capture certain things, in particular -- he does it best with Daphne I think, starting in the opening lines, but then again also with many other characters throughout -- the particular narcissism-insecurity-enthusiasm cocktail of youth. What a writer...! So great.

But my sense of his greatness is just why I'm having a hard time thinking of what to say about it. I was so impressed by his talents, yet those same talents jacked up my expectations so high, and so while I was never bored I was ultimately disappointed because I didn't feel the book ever transcended itself to become more than the sum of its parts... which maybe isn't fair of me. Probably it's not. Part of the problem is that I am super, super into great endings but found the beginning of its penultimate chapter clumsy, manipulative, and annoying -- the memorial service? I just hated the beginning of that, the fade-in, how he was coyly not saying who'd died, and you had this new character who was such a stock Alan Hollingsworth guy, plus having to guess who's who and what's what, then all the CHANGING SOCIAL MORES and OMG WE HAVE CELLPHONES plastered against your face... I mean, it really wasn't awful at all and I did wind up enjoying that section, but there is a line at the end of The Line of Beauty that I cry whenever I read, that I consider to be one of the most sublime sentences in English literature. And this book, well I liked it, but it didn't do that for me. So I mean, if I'd just come across it and it had been the first thing of his I'd read I definitely would've given it four stars, but since this guy wrote one of my favorite sentences in English literature, I guess that rightly or wrongly I need more from him.

Jessica Wow, did they change the comment thing on here so you can't go back and edit comments anymore? They should've done that years ago, so I guess I can't really complain.

Very embarrassed though that my chronic name-dyslexia is on full display here. I totally know a guy named Hollingsworth, and I also totally know Alan Hollinghurst's last name, I just have this really weird cognitive problem...

There must be some kind of pill I can take for this.

message 10: by Eric (last edited Apr 09, 2012 09:27PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Eric No worries, I knew what you meant. A brain fart like we all have. Also, your comment seems to have prompted a crazy Hollinghurst dream. I saw it Sunday 4/8 and that (last) night dreamt that he was writing a profile of my family (WTF?). He drummed his fingers impatiently at a mall food court table while I hit on bubblegum-chewing jailbait (!!!); and, when visiting my apartment later, scoffed at my avowal of admiration and pointed out that I didn't have any of his novels on my shelves, but had tons of Martin Amis....odd because I have all of Hollinghurst's books, while my Amis is patchy. I defended myself by intricately praising Strangers Child...and woke wanting to reread it.

Laura Very funny! Your review was wonderfully written, I loved the book too, my first since The Swimming-pool Library.

message 12: by Bill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill A beautiful review and I agree with the points you mention. Being a septuagenarian, I was left feeling disturbed with thoughts of my life having little meaning even in review by myself or others.

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