The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (2011) 564 p.
This was the first novel I decided to read for my 2011 Booker challenge, not out of interest, but because it’s the only book on the longlist that I am absolutely confident will make the shortlist. I’ve never read any of Hollinghurst’s previous work, but his last novel, The Line of Beauty, won the 2004 Booker (over my favourite novel of all time, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas).
Hollinghurst is generally considered to be one of the finest English writers alive, but his reputation and his previous win are not the only reason he’s the bookie’s favourite to take home this year’s prize. There’s a phrase called “Oscar bait,” which refers to a film that calculatingly appeals to the literary sensibilities of the Academy: an important historical setting (especially World War II), a little-known illness or affliction, being a biopic, homosexuality etc. The King’s Speech, The English Patient and Forrest Gump are all excellent examples. But the phrase Booker bait could be used as well, and it seems it is, Grub Street being the first but not the only Google hit for it. Although the Booker prize is more likely to reward inventive and unusual novels than its transatlantic counterpart the Pulitzer (which often goes to a multi-generational story of immigrants), it’s still susceptible to seduction by a 550-page brick of a family saga set across the sweeping panorama of 20th century history. Particularly if much of it is set in an English country manor, as The Stranger’s Child is.
The Stranger’s Child follows the story of the Sawle and Valance families, beginning in 1913 with the young poet Cecil Valance visiting his “friend” George Sawle at his family’s home for the weekend. While here, Cecil writes a poem called “Two Acres” which later becomes famous, and the rest of the book follows the intertwining fates of the Sawles and Valances, and the rise and fall of Cecil’s literary reputation. The later chapters feature a biographer interviewing the surviving family members and penning a biography about him, and the novel’s key theme is about how history consists largely of memories and mythologies, rather than what actually happened.
I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it. Hollinghurst’s prose style, while perfectly functional, isn’t particularly beautiful, and he rarely impressed me with his descriptions or turns of phrase. He also has an annoying habit of having his characters endlessly analyse every little thing said to them, or that they say, playing it back over in their heads and doubting the motives behind it, or how it appeared to other people. This is of course how people’s thought processes actually run, even if we’re not aware of it most of the time, but to read it on the page is quickly tiring.
The five chapters in the book make massive leaps across time, and most of the action in the characters’ lives – births, deaths, marriages and separations – takes place off-screen. This is part of the point of the novel, but I found it difficult to keep track of all the new children and relationships, and by the end of the novel there were characters whom I’d forgotten about, and whom I couldn’t quite remember how they were related to the other characters. This may be my problem, not Hollinghurst’s, but I’d be remiss not to mention it.
My overall impression of The Stranger’s Child was a mostly (but not terribly) dull book, which I often found myself slogging through, half a thousand pages of parties and domestic evenings and discussions about poets. And gay sex, of course, though apparently he toned it down from his last novels.
Definitely a shoe-in for the shortlist and, as I mentioned earlier, the bookie’s favourite to win. But as I also mentioned, the Booker committee isn’t as susceptible to “bait” works as the Academy Awards or the Pulitzer Prize. They’re just as likely to reward it to a historical fiction novel like True History of the Kelly Gang, or a work of magical realism like Life of Pi. If The Stranger’s Child does win – which is still a strong possibility – it will probably be at the expense of a more interesting novel.