Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Book #80 The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

The Stranger's Child

The Stranger's Child of course was the shock omission from the Booker Shortlist. It is difficult to see why it was omitted, it is a good book, it practically screams Booker friendly novel. But yet, the book seems to have an expectant face, the assurance of a boy who is good at football who knows he'll be picked first for a team.  This, is perhaps why it was omitted, to shake up the type of novels and authors we have come to expect from The Prize, to prevent the air of inevitability to the proceedings.

Susan Hill who features on the judging panel has apparently been vocal in her belief that previous prize winners should no longer be eligible for the prize. Hollinghurst of course won in 2004 with The Line Of Beauty, so perhaps Hill's opinion held sway with the rest of the panel. Certainly, I had  previously had a personal niggle that I believed that twice winner Peter Carey's rather mediocre 'Parrot and Olivier in America', nominated last year had received a ingratiating 'courtesy nod' not because of merit, but as a foregone conclusion, "we mustn't slight Carey" .

So what happens when, as in this case, a former winner has written one of the best books on the list? If the prize is to judge the best book of year, surely whether the author has won or been nominated previously is irrelevant? The book stands alone to be judged for its quality, which this has in spades. The rest is just so much pettiness and politics.  

So, whats the book about? Well, somewhat like Jennifer Egan's 'A Visit From The Goon Squad' the novel is about time and change. It is also too, in a way about how we know about our authors or our poets, how we define both their lives, and what literary critics think they "were trying to say", what the pivotal points of their lives were and how this can often be widely off the mark. Further to that, the odd reality of how celebrated people in time cease to exist as real people but as curiousities with a value to collectors. Thirdly, it is a reflection upon how social change over the last century has affected the lives of gay men from keeping relationships a "terrible secret" under wraps through to public flirting and acceptance.

We begin with Daphne Sawle who is in a sense the centre around which the novel turns. She is young, not yet 18 and is awaiting the much anticipated arrival of Cecil, her brothers close friend from university. It's pre World War One and things are carefree for these privileged young people. Cecil is the sort of arrogant young man who attracts admirers but isn't half as clever as he thinks he is. Beneath his polite veneer and his celebratory poem Two Acres, Daphne's home is nothing compared to the Valance residence at Corley. He condescends to the family, and flirts with Daphne concealing his true relationship with George.

Part Two flashes us forward, George is married and Daphne mistress of Corley, but the Sawles and Valances both suffered loss in the Great War. They live with the legacy of a minor celebrated war poet, a source of great pride for some and an albatross for others.

A flashforward again and here we meet Paul a poetry fan who works in a bank, who suddenly comes across Daphne a feisty septuagenarian, but researching his planned biography, can he discover the truth about her past?       

Initially, it reminded of both Brideshead Revisited which I didn't get on with, and Atonement which I gave up on entirely, so, I was a bit worried at the start that I'd repeat those experiences. However, I genuinely enjoyed this book which throughout seemed to have a summer garden party feel to it. I liked the jumps in time, though I felt that there was so much to Daphne's story as a young divorcee which would have made a great contribution to the novel. Having read some Tennyson I felt that the emphasis on the Victorian poet was meant to highlight the comparison between the George and Cecil relationship to Tennyson and Arthur Hallam, which is interesting as an inspiration though I don't know if Hollinghurst has stated for the record that there was inspiration here. It is implied of course, given that "the stranger's child" is part of a line of 'In Memoriam'.

I've seen query that there is perhaps an unfeasible amount of gay men in The Stranger's Child, I'm not sure I agree with that, perhaps unfeasibly too many within one extended family but to be honest I don't think it matters. It should be the story that matters and the idea and both of these are well executed.
The final short section of the book featuring Rob the book collector is somewhat surplus to requirements and is a bit of an empty conclusion. The book should really, in my opinion have ended where it began with Daphne. Ultimately though is it a good book? Yes it is. Should it have made the Booker shortlist? Yes, it bloody should have! 8/10

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