One of the biggest surprises in the UK literary world of 2011 was the exclusion of Alan Hollinghurst’s fifth novel, The Stranger’s Child, from the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize. Ambitious, intricate, Hollinghurst’s ‘country house’ novel is spread over one hundred years and is masterfully told.
Regarded by many as his best, the best novel of the year by far and from a novelist already the recipient of the Booker (The Line of Beauty, 2004), critics were outraged, accusing the judges of dumbing down the list in favour of sales rather than merit. Hollinghurst, Sebastian Barry (On Canaan’s Side) and D J Taylor (Derby Day) were just three of the authors jettisoned from the long list that caused yet another literary spat for which the Booker shortlist is renowned.
Victory for Julian Barnes and The Sense of an Ending, the most ‘literary’ of the shortlisted works, was something of a retort by the judges to the critics.
The Stranger’s Child is Hollinghurst’s epic. Spread over 100 years and divided into five parts, each is centred round a celebration of some description – a dinner party, a birthday, a memorial service.
Stories, places and characters interweave and overlap within the time frame, with poet Cecil Vance central to the whole. An audacious young seducer of men and women, the aristocrat takes his place in English literary history as a poet cut down in his prime during the Great War. Featuring in only the initial section of the book, Cecil and his writings, his actions, his very spirit are present throughout the entire novel.
Part of the establishment, the heir to his father’s baronetcy and the vast Corley Court, the poet’s visit to the more modest home of fellow-Cambridge student George Sawle in 1913 sets in motion a litany of events, the intrigues and ramifications of which are still being discussed and discovered almost a century later.
Seen from the perspective of family, lovers, servants, biographers, publishers, schoolteachers, the century unfolds and unfurls, with the author exploring themes Hollinghurst constantly visits in his novels – the sense of Englishness and its changing social, sexual and political landscape.
Class is at the core of Hollinghurst’s novels, with The Stranger’s Child no different.
The arrogant dilettantism of the aristocratic younger members of the Vance family through to the socially impressionable young bank clerk Paul Bryant in the 1960s; Peter Rowe, the snobbish gay schoolteacher through to Daphne Jacobs, sister of George Sawle, former wife of Dudley Valance (Cecil’s younger brother) and now impoverished widow. All are central characters, all represent and highlight the changes in English culture and attitude over the twentieth century.
As the book opens, Cecil and George’s relationship is unmentionable in polite society. As the book closes almost one hundred years later, biographer Paul Bryant departs a memorial service with his partner, Bobby, a same-sex relationship officially recognised by a civil union.
It is a huge shift. The twentieth century saw huge changes. Yet Hollinghurst, in his magnum opus (to date), stunningly conveys these changes in a narrative of imaginative yet economic depth.
The Stranger’s Child is no historical prose cluttered with a bevy of upstairs, downstairs characters. Two Acres, the intimate upper middle-class home of the Sawles family, beautifully captures the mood of pre-Great War England far more than the several thousand acres of Corley Court. The fate of three times married Daphne and her rise and fall from Two Acres to a “decrepit-looking bungalow” via Corley Court conveys social change far more readily than many history tomes.
It is the author’s most accessible book to date, avoiding as he has the occasional foray into florid verbosity that has, to my mind, marred his previous novels (The Swimming Pool Library in particular). He is a master storyteller and, with The Stranger’s Child, has delivered his masterpiece.