Heidi's Reviews > The Stranger's Child

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
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's review
Aug 20, 2011

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bookshelves: historical, recorded-books-smpl, written-review
Read in September, 2012

I read “The strangers child” for several reasons: it has a historical angle (the story starts in 1913), it takes place in England, it was long listed for the Booker prize, and the cover of the CD showed an alluring portrait of a man wearing a boater, his eyes enigmatically fuzzed out – a cover suggestive of mystery, that is reinforced by the ad copy on the back: “Over time, a tragic love story is spun, even as other secrets lie buried--until, decades later, an ambitious biographer threatens to unearth them…” What was not to be intrigued by? I thought. A kind of literary whodunit, all encased in the melancholy glamour of the upper classes pre-World War I – it sounded, well, divine, darling!

But the more I read, the more confused, exasperated, and frankly bored I became. The book starts in 1913, then jumps to 1927 or thereabouts, forwards to the 1960s and thence to the 1980s, with a small codicil in the present day, and putatively concerns some mystery swirling around a minor poet named Cecil Valance who died in the great war. But what the secrets consist of is never clear. It appears that Cecil, who was bisexual, might have fathered a child with his lover’s sister, but so what? This ‘lapse’ doesn’t clarify who Cecil was as a person, nor does it flesh out any of his contemporaries, who remain stubbornly bloodless. Meanwhile, the would-be biographer, Paul Bryant, spends untold hours interviewing every possible source in search of a coup, to little avail. We are treated to hours of chatter from peers to valets, dragged from baronial parlors to solemn crypts, and at the end feel little wiser than before. Perusing the reviews on Goodreads suggests that Hollingsworth was trying to get at the unreliability of memory; If so, it was a very long and tiresome slog to illustrate this minor nugget.

I also found it tiresome that every single character, just about, was overtly or secretly gay. Now I knew beforehand that Hollingsworth is gay and would probably write about gay characters, but somehow, the fact that in this multigenerational and crowded societal canvas there was barely a straight person seemed unrealistic. I am not a homophobe, I swear! It’s just that in a multi-generational saga you don’t usually leave out two-thirds of the population.

Finally, the writing. Everybody raves about Hollingsworth’s prose, and it’s true, he is poetic and facile and occasionally inspired; but I found it exasperating that he never met an adverb he didn’t like. I grew up on English books and am well aware that British authors are not fans of using one pithy verb when a qualified, even multi-qualified one, will do. But even I started getting tired of the avalanche of adverbs, which are crammed in as thickly as bibelots in Aunt Mathilda’s parlor.

Maybe it was a simple matter of expectations; I was expecting a mystery revolving around a tragic love affair (someone enlighten me about what this tragic love affair was, please!) and instead I got a painstakingly detailed series of conversations, cinema verite style, that were well rendered but ultimately felt unsatisfying. Lesson learned; talented writer writer, just not for me.

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