Tuesday, 30 August 2011
The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
The novel is set over several decades, beginning in 1913. George Sawle brings his university friend Cecil Valance home for a weekend visit. Cecil is a very confident young man who comes from a rich family and is heir to a title. He has also had a few poems published. The Sawles are a middle class family and Cecil is quite an exotic creature to them. George's younger sister, Daphne, is particularly taken with him. Unbeknownst to the rest of the family George and Cecil are having an affair.
The story then skips to the 1920s. This is the structure right through the book. The reader sees snapshots of the lives. Some people are gone and new people arrive. I thought this was very effective and I loved puzzling out how all the pieces fitted together when a new section began. When we reach the 1920s it is revealed that Cecil has been killed in the First World War. He had more poems published and his mother is determined to preserve his legacy. One of the story strands which gradually gets resolved over the course of the book is just how good were Cecil's poems?
One of the interesting things I found in this book was the character development. Because of the jumps of a decade or more we don't see characters change gradually. We see how they end up - without any of the intervening bits. So it's up to the reader through deduction and guesswork to figure out what has happened to make them that way. I thought this particularly about Paul Bryant, a character we first meet in the 1960s as a callow youth. I thought that the author was very clever in the way when we meet Paul again he is recognisable but also changed in a completely convincing way.
I also loved the way some characters just drifted away, and others that I thought had drifted away popped up again unexpectedly. I suppose with a book less well written than this one that might've been irritating. I didn't find it irritating, I just thought it was an accurate observation of life, where people do come and go.
I thought this was a really good read and I would recommend it. I've got The Line of Beauty by the same author on my TBR shelf and I think I'll read it sooner rather than later.