Cecily's Reviews > The Stranger's Child

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
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it was amazing
bookshelves: miscellaneous-fiction, sexuality-gender, historical-fict-20th-cent

This tells a riveting and complex saga with profound insight, plenty of intrigue and dashes of wit. From the first dozen pages, even the first few sentences, I was drawn into a love affair with the writing of this book. I read large chunks more than once because the writing is breathtaking, but leisurely: I wanted to capture the craft and jot down many quotes (see the end of this for a long selection).

Having finished, I still love it, even though the quality was not quite maintained. It is a story told in five parts and spanning a century. The first two parts are superb (and have echoes of Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...) and Byatt's "The Children's Book" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/... the third is good, and the last two are too different to fit well with what’s gone before, and the ending is unsatisfyingly abrupt. It's not so much that the later sections are bad as the fact they just didn't "fit" the rest of the book and suffer in comparison with what precedes them. It almost felt as if they were there to bang home the themes of truth, memories, aging, changing mores etc, just in case we didn't notice them in the earlier sections. It's another way in which it resembles "The Children's Book": the best aspects are stunning, but it is also very flawed

Although Hollinghurst is well known as a gay writer (both himself, and his books), and this does feature gay relationships and illustrate how attitudes have changed over the last hundred years, it felt like a family saga, rather than a gay book.


The key character appears to be a budding poet, Cecil Valence. He enters the story in 1913 as the wealthy university friend of middle class George Sawle. All the characters in the coming hundred years and 500+ pages have some sort of connection with him, but really it is George’s sister Daphne who is the pivot of the tangled stories. And they are tangled: there is a web of relationships, with lies, suppressed longings, and secrets, so one is often unsure who fancies who and who knows what about whom.

Subsequent sections are in the mid 1920s, mid 1960s, around 1990 and the present day (2011/12). The first two sections have a strong sense of place: the Sawle’s suburban home, Two Acres, and then the Valence’s enormous Victorian estate, Corley Court. These sections have very strong echoes of “Brideshead”, yet don’t feel derivative (a skillful balancing act). In later sections, the characters and plot are rather more adrift.

I enjoyed the deliberate obfuscation of the sudden time jumps at the start of each section, e.g. not being immediately sure who labels such as "husband" and "dead brother" applied to, or who “Mrs Jacobs” was (not always the most obvious one). I just didn't enjoy the characters, style and milieu of the later parts quite as much.


The Valences and Sawles are the main characters – along with their respective homes (again, like Brideshead). A new wife “felt she wouldn’t have chosen it, felt it had in a way chosen her”.

The changing zeitgeist and the aging and maturing of the characters are generally very good: insightful, amusing and plausible.

The opening word (“she”) refers to Daphne, a central character throughout, though not always the most important. As she says of herself in old age, “I never pretended to be a wonderful writer, but I have known some very interesting people.”

The contrasts between what people say, feel, mean and are thought to mean by others are clearly but delicately marked, especially in the first section, when Daphne is juggling sibling rivalry with the first stirrings of attraction, whilst still very naïve about such things. Other characters have things to hide (relationships, drink, money problems). Daphne often “felt again she was missing something, but was carried along by the excitement of making [adult] conversation”.


Class difference, deference, aspiration and the consequences of social mobility (up and down) are obvious themes that affect all the characters. Is “unthinking social confidence” the same as being a snob? One woman had “a slight bewildered totter among the grandeur that her daughter now had to pretend to take for granted” (so much summed up in that pithy sentence) and another “hadn’t been born into [X’s] world, even though she now wore its lacquered carapace”. At the other end of the spectrum, a humble bank clerk feels socially awkward from knowing, via people’s financial circumstances, that they may not be all that they seem.

More importantly, several characters write (poetry, biography, memoirs, criticism). Questions of “what is the truth?”, “who knows what?” and the way we edit our own and other people’s histories weave through the book and are pertinent to all the main characters, especially those burdened with secrets (whether their own or those of others). Memoirs are “not fiction… but a sort of poetical reconstruction”. Are such edits usually unconscious, and if not, are they justifiable? They certainly make it hard for biographers, one of whom complains, “People wouldn’t tell you things, and they then blamed you for not knowing them.” Then he realised “The writer of a life didn’t only write about the past, and that the secrets he dealt in might have all kinds of consequences in other lives, in years to come” – and this aspect is perhaps the dominant theme of the book, creating a Russian-doll like structure of nested histories.

The subtle dynamics of covert relationships are carefully drawn, especially early on, managing to create a degree of ambiguity and at the same time, giving the reader the feeling of being “in the know”. Later on, there is additional dramatic tension from the characters’ own doubts about some things, and even the reader’s doubts about which characters know what: George was “amused by its [a poem] having a secret and sadly reassured by the fact it could never be told.”

I feel as if this ought to be a major theme, and possibly Hollinghurst would like it to be, but it never felt like a big deal to me. Yes, several characters are gay or bisexual, and some are secretive about their desires, but the desire and the secrecy seemed more pertinent than the sex of the people they were attracted to. Having sections set in different periods does illustrate how society has become more accepting, but maybe that's just society growing up?

The main characters span a variety of ages, which presents a challenge that Hollinghurst rises to. In particular, the Edwardian Daphne’s teenage desires and anxieties are wonderfully done. When offered a cigar, “She really didn’t want the cigar, but she was worried by the thought of missing a chance at it. It was something none of her friends had done, she was pretty sure of that.” So she took it “with a feeling of shame and duty and regret”. Whether it was a cigar or something else, I’m sure we can all empathise with Daphne’s mixed emotions. Similarly, being in on (partial) adult knowledge isn’t always what one wants or expects, “the joy of discovery was shadowed by the sense of being left behind”. Pondering her first kiss, she “savoured the shock of it properly… With each retelling, the story… made her heart race a fraction less… and her reasonable relief at this gradual change was coloured with a tinge of indignation”.

Several characters drink too much, though some are more aware of it than others: “the tray of bottles, some friendly, some over-familiar, one or two to be avoided”.


The opening chapter is particularly entrancing: it captures the anticipation of the forthcoming evening, coupled with the evening light, in a series of subtly beautiful images about relationships, awkwardness, and ease, presaging all that is to come. There are wonderful images and great insight throughout. It might be thought to be overwritten, but I enjoyed the detail.


Who is the eponymous "stranger's child"? For a while that question niggled (it's a phrase from Tennyson), and there are one or two candidates, but later I felt it didn't really matter, and was perhaps just a metaphor for each child's uniqueness, and, in some respects, their unknowability.


• “Something of the time of day held her, with its hint of a mystery she had so far overlooked… It was the long still moment when the hedges and borders turned dusky and vague, but anything she looked at closely… seemed to give itself back to the day with a secret throb of colour.”
• “The slight asperity that gave even her nicest remarks an air of sarcasm.”
• Jonah was only 15, had never acted as a valet (or even observed one) and was told to “unpack… and arrange the contents ‘convincingly’. This was the word, enormous but elusive, that Jonah had had on his mind all day… gripping him again with a subtle horror.” Later, he had “The strange feeling of being intimate with someone who was simultaneously unaware of him.”
• Even the legitimate offspring of a respectable dead father can feel it a social handicap in Edwardian times: “He felt a twinge of shame and regret at having no father, and for ever having to make do.”
• Outrageous letters were like “Pompeiian obscenities, hiding just out of view behind the curtains and in the shadows of the inglenook.”
• “Records were indeed marvels, but they were only tiny helpings of the ocean of music.”
• A 16-year old “picked up her glass and drained it with a complicated feeling of sadness and satisfaction that was thoroughly endorsed by Wagner’s restless ballad.”
• For some reason, this tickled me, “… said Daphne experimentally”.
• A couple had “their little myth of origins, its artificiality part of its erotic charm”.
• “The remark [a compliment] seemed to have curved in the air, to have set out towards some more obvious and perhaps deserving target, and then swooped wonderfully home.”
• “His feelings absorbed him so completely that he seemed to float towards them, weak with excitement, across a purely symbolic landscape.”
• A woodland pond was “a loose ellipse of water”.
• He had “a very particular way of looking at her… of holding her eye at moments in their talk, so that another unspoken conversation seemed also to be going on… She felt a certain thrilled complacency at the choice he had secretly made.”
• “moaning with a lover’s pangs, as well as with a certain sulky relief at this tragic postponement.”
• “spread some butter on her toast, though really her smothered anxiety had squeezed up her appetite to nothing.”
• Of a somewhat back-handed compliment: “her involuntary German air of meaning rather more.”
• She “held back, with a thin fixed smile, in which various doubts and questions were tightly hidden.”
• A dining room “with its gaudy décor, its mirrors and gilding” was “like some funereal fairground”!
• People who had loved and feuded came together to share memories of someone who had died, “submissively clutching their contributions. A dispiriting odour of false piety and dutiful suppression seemed to rise from the table and hang like cabbage-smells in the jelly-mould domes of the ceiling”.
• Tact required a “courteous saunter around an unmentionable truth” and “a mist of delicacy had obscured the subject”.
• “The dark oak door of the chapel loomed, seemed to summon and dishearten the visitor with the same black stare… Chapel silence, with its faint penumbra of excluded sounds.”
• They “looked more like colleagues than a couple” because “their hands seemed somehow locked away from any mutual use”.
• “Bland evasiveness had slowly assumed the appearance of natural forgiveness.”
• He “turned to her with that unstable mixture of indulgence and polite bewilderment and mocking distaste that she had come to know and dread and furiously resent.”
• After one character’s boorish outburst at a children’s party “a collective effort at repair had been made”, one couple “having an ideally boring conversation about shooting to show that things were under control”!
• After dinner, there was “talk of a game. Those who were keen half smothered their interest, and those who weren’t pretended blandly that they didn’t mind.”
• “It was the most unapproachable room in the house… dark with prohibitions. His father’s anger… had withdrawn into it, like a dragon to its lair.”
• “His features seemed rather small and provisional.”
• “The front door was wide open, as though the house had surrendered itself to the sunny day.”
• “At this indefinable time of day… The time, like the light, seemed somehow viscous.”
• A lodger’s room: “Nothing went with anything else. They had the air of things not wanted elsewhere in the house… the brown wool rug made by Mr Marsh himself at what must have been a low moment.”
• The PE teacher “dressed in sports kit at improbable times of day, he was adored by many of the boys, and instinctively avoided by others.”
• “In the deepening shadows between pools of candlelight, the guests… conversations stretching and breaking, in an amiable jostle… like a flickering frieze, unknowable faces all bending willingly to something perhaps none of them individually would have chosen to do.”
• “eagerness struggling with some entrenched habit of disappointment.”
• Daphne’s copious bag had “the family trait of being shapelessly bulky – too bulky, really, to count as a handbag. It admitted as much in its helpless slump.”
• “The upstairs windows seemed to ponder blankly on the reflections of clouds.”
• “The perfect but impersonal dentures that gave their own helpless eagerness to an old man’s face” – the same man with “the eagerness and charm, the smile confidently friendly but not hilarious, the note of respect with a hint of conspiracy.”
• “Her sense of humour is really no more than an irritable suspicion that someone else might find something funny.”
• A house heaving with clutter creates “a worrying sense of the temporary grown permanent” (a lesson for me).
• “The air of mildly offended blankness, which is the default expression of any congregation.”
• “X and his computer lived together in intense co-dependency, as if they shared a brain, his arcane undiscriminating memory backed up on the machine and perpetually enlarged by it.”
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Reading Progress

July 31, 2012 – Started Reading
July 31, 2012 – Shelved
August 11, 2012 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-39 of 39 (39 new)

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message 1: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim What a great review, Cecily. It really makes the book come alive. I've not read Hollinghurst. No particular reason why, just never got around to it. Your review makes me want to read this one.

Cecily Thanks, I'd never read him before either, but I now have "In the Line of Beauty" near the top of my TBR pile.

message 3: by Kim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kim Cecily wrote: "... but I now have "In the Line of Beauty" near the top of my TBR pile."

I've been vaguely planning to read that one, ever since it won the Booker. One of these days I'll actually get around to it.

message 4: by Will (last edited Sep 14, 2012 12:13AM) (new)

Will Byrnes This may be one of the most comprehensive reviews I have seen here. Fascinating stuff.

Cecily Thank you, though there are quite a few other people that write reviews that are at least as comprehensive and often more erudite than mine

switterbug (Betsey) What a lovely review, Cecily. I have a signed copy on my shelf. I look forward to it!

midnightfaerie beautiful review! this is the reason i love goodreads! added it to my to-reads list as soon as i read ur review. also - love the quotes at the end! it really gives a feel for how the author writes...thanks so much for this contribution!

message 8: by Steve (new)

Steve I'd been hearing good things about this one, but this stellar review explains exactly why we should be tempted by it. Your thematic breakdowns and quoted examples were great selling points. Nicely done, Cecily!

Gary  the Bookworm What a wonderful analysis. I also loved this book and your review articulates why. Geez, I wish I had the patience-and the skill-to dissect books that I love in this way. It isn't as if I don't have the time. I'm just grateful that people like you share your brilliance with the rest of us!

Cecily You're too kind. For me, the secret was to start making notes as I read each book; then I just write it all down to crystallise my thoughts. If other people enjoy the results, that's a bonus.

message 11: by Dolors (new)

Dolors Bravo Cecily, you capture each angle of the book close to perfection! I read The Line of Beauty some years ago and I recognized my own feelings with your review! I'll have check this title out!

Cecily Thanks, Dolors. That's near the top of my TBR pile.

message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

Wonderful review. I am so grateful that you have introduced me to an author about whom I had not heard. As usual, I admire the informative way in which you structure your review.

Cecily I hope you enjoy it in due course. I have not yet read any other Hollinghurst, but I do have a copy of The Line of Beauty awaiting a timeslot.

Laura Thanks, Cecily, I too have enjoyed both the book and your detailed review.

Cecily Thanks, Laura.

Jasmine This is a captivating and insightful review of Hollinghurst's latest book! I look forward to reading "The stranger's child" which is on my to-read list.
"The Line of Beauty" was an extraordinary reading experience for me. It has one of the most beautiful and sad endings I've ever read.

Cecily Thanks, Jasmine. I'm going the other way from you: In the Line of Beauty is still waiting for me to read it (I do have a copy, though).

message 19: by Elyse (new) - added it

Elyse Walters I'm very intrigued by your review. I usually love a good family saga. I'm sure I would be drawn to the love affair myself... plus, when I enjoy a book immediately, its a good sign. I question why so many 'mixed' reviews on this book, though...
Having never rea Alan Hollinghurst 'at all' --(you've inspired me) --I picked a book of his that I thought I'd most want to start with. If you have a 'strong' suggestion. I'd like to hear your thoughts. I picked "The Swimming Pool Library". Thank you, Cecily, for your wonderful dedication for 'amazing' reviews!

Cecily Hi Elyse. Intrigue is good.

Much as I enjoyed this, it's still the only Hollinghurst I've read (though I saw a film of The Swimming Pool Library ages ago).

This is a good family saga, but much more than that. I'm not sure why it gets such mixed reviews, but it's probably partly because the style is rather inconsistent. Also, some may dislike the gay aspect, even though there's nothing graphic.

message 21: by Elyse (new) - added it

Elyse Walters If 'this' book wasn't so long -and I didn't already have a ton of books to read on my plate-- I'd jump right in.
I like your review!

You paint the flavor well!

Kåre very good review! And a fine book

Cecily Thanks, Kåre. Looking at your shelves and seeing where our tastes overlap, I think there's a good chance you'll enjoy this.

message 24: by Helen (new)

Helen Gottsh This has been my Reading Group's book of the month for which we are meeting to discuss tomorrow! Your comprehensive review gives better insight into the story, the characters and the writing than others I have read. gree with you about the last two sections. Seem to be a bit clumsy in comparison with the earlier sections. Thanks Cecily

Cecily Helen, thank you for your kind words. I hope you have an enjoyable and productive book group meeting.

message 26: by Helen (new)

Helen Gottsh Thanks Cecily.Lots of vigorous and animated discussion generated today. Only 5 of us. Your review much appreciated and added interest to our session - 1 hour plus non-stop!!

Cecily Yay! I'm glad it went well. If you write your own review, feel free to post a link here.

Helle This is a phenomenal review, Cecily, and you're spot on in your thorough analysis. I'm so glad you're spreading the word of Alan Hollinghurst's prose with a review like this. My own scribblings pale in comparison. I'll check if you've gotten to any of his other books since :-) This was also the first novel by him that I read - but I've read the rest since. I think I'll go back to your review before re-reading The Stranger's Child.

Cecily Helle, you're very generous. Thank you. Scribblings may be better: this review is comprehensive, but it's too long and detailed. In 2016, I really want to make progress in distilling my ideas more effectively. It will be patchy, I'm sure.

I keep meaning to read another Hollinghurst, but other things keep overtaking him on my TBR.

message 30: by Trish (new) - added it

Trish The publisher's description makes the novel sound exactly like The Go-Between, but you didn't mention any similarities in theme or plot. Perhaps you did not see that earlier book, orig published 1953?

message 31: by HBalikov (new)

HBalikov That description, Trish, raised the same thought for me.

Cecily Trish wrote: "The publisher's description makes the novel sound exactly like The Go-Between..."

Good point! I saw the film in my teens, and maybe read the book in my twenties, but I've probably not encountered either since, so I didn't make the connection. Thanks, Trish and H.

message 33: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Oh, thank you for bringing this author on my radar again! I have been intending to explore him further, and this sounds promising. Great review, Cecily!

Cecily Lisa wrote: "Oh, thank you for bringing this author on my radar again! I have been intending to explore him further, and this sounds promising. Great review, Cecily!"

Thanks, but it was Trish who picked out this old review. But I, too, need to read another Hollinghurst, so it was a good reminder. Thanks, Lisa.

message 35: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan Cecily wrote: "Well thanks to Trish then too, Cecily."

message 36: by Simon (new)

Simon Thank you! A comprehensive and interesting review of a book that I've just picked up in a Oxfam charity shop.

I've heard of the author but not read anything of his, at all. Reviews like yours are really valuable for giving detailed background and reasoned opinion without giving everything away.

Thanks again!! I'll dive into The Stranger's Child shortly, when I've worked through a couple of other recent acquisitions in the book line. Simon

Cecily Simon wrote: "Thank you! A comprehensive and interesting review of a book that I've just picked up..."

Thanks, Simon. I hope you enjoy it, when you get to it.

Simon wrote: "Reviews like yours are really valuable for giving detailed background and reasoned opinion without giving everything away...."

What a lovely thing to say. Thanks.

Kevin Ansbro I never knew when I picked this up that you'd read this, Cecily.
You enjoyed the story far more than I did.
I like that we were both in sync with the Brideshead Revisited comparison!
Superb review!

Cecily Kevin wrote: "I never knew when I picked this up that you'd read this, Cecily."

It was probably before we were friends, but even if not, one can't keep with everything everyone posts.

Kevin wrote: "I like that we were both in sync with the Brideshead Revisited comparison!
Superb review!"

Yep. Snap! And thanks.

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