2012 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in Fiction: Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child

October 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

The hardest reviews for me to write are for those novels that, if I were utilizing a checklist to mark off those qualities discovered in the text, would be full of good marks except for the crucial one of actually liking the book itself.  Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child is one of those novels.  It contains an intriguing, generations-spanning plot, well-drawn characters, and the prose for the most part is simply superb.  Yet when I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago, I was left feeling cold and distant from the text.  Sometimes, reviews that explore just why a novel didn’t work for the reviewer but more likely would make a satisfying read for the majority of readers tell more about a text than a laudatory or strictly condemnatory essay.  Perhaps this short essay will help clarify my position and place The Stranger’s Child in an appropriate context.

The Stranger’s Child centers around a fictional, second-rate British poet, Cecil Valance, and his sexual escapades with the Sawle siblings, George and Daphne, during his visit to their modest estate in 1913, which has ramifications that stretch over nearly a century.  Hollinghurst does an excellent job capturing the extant social divides of that time that makes divisions between the bourgeosis and the gentry classes clear even to Americans such as myself who did not grow up in such a class-based society (well, not exactly true, but social class in the American South is a different creature from that experienced in England).  In Cecil’s interactions with the Sawle siblings, there certainly is the deference of the lower to the higher when it comes to sexual activity.  Take for instance the ravishment of George:

“Let’s go a bit further,” said Cecil.  George sighed and followed behind him, rubbing his wrist with an air of grievance.  He saw that this little mime of prudence, air of woodcraft, had just been Cecil’s way of getting on top and taking control of a scene which George for once had planned.  Well, they were dreams as much as plans, memories mixed up with wild ideas for things they’d not yet done, perhaps could never do.  Cecil, under other circumstances, was bold to the point of recklessness.  George let him go ahead, pushing springy branches aside, barely bothering to hold them back for his friend, as if he could look after himself.  It was all so new, the pleasure flecked with its opposite, with little hurts and contradictions that came to seem as much a part of love as the clear gaze of acceptance.  He watched Cecil’s back, the loose grey linen jacket, dark curls twisting out under the brim of his cap, with a momentary sense of following a stranger.  He couldn’t think what to say, his yearning coloured with apprehension, since Cecil was demanding and at times almost violent.  Now they’d emerged by the huge fallen oak that George could have led him to by a much quicker path.  It had come down in the storms several winters ago and he had watched it sink over time on the shattered branches beneath it, like a great gnarled monster protractedly lying down, bedding down in its own rot and wreckage.  Cecil stopped and shrugged with pleasure, slipped off his jacket and hung it on the upraised claw above him.  Then he turned and reached out his hands impatiently.

***

The squirrel twitched its brown tail, scrabbled up its branch, watched him again.  Perhaps it had watched his whole performance.  It seemed to be applauding, with its tiny hands.  George, still lying in the leaves, watched them both.  He was amazed each time by Cecil’s detachment, unsure if it was a virtue or a lack.  Perhaps Cecil thought it rather poor form of George to be so shaken by the experience.  The tender comedy of George’s recovery, the invalidish wince and protesting groan at his ravishment, were ignored.  Once in college he had been back at his desk within a minute, with a paper to finish, and seemed almost vexed when he turned a while later to find George still lying there, as he was now, spent but tender, and longing for the patient touch and simple smile of shared knowledge.

Hollinghurst does an outstanding job hinting at the divisions between the two furtive lovers.  There is the impatient imperative tone to Cecil’s words and actions, as though he never brooked any dissent.  This is complemented by George’s combination of frustration and submission (one does not get the picture here that the two reversed their sexual roles; master and quasi-servant here) to what is a reciprocated lust but not a returned love.  It is a masterful portrayal, reminiscent of some of Henry James or E.M. Forster’s best writing, especially in how the characters are portrayed within their societies (and in the case of Forster’s posthumous novel, Maurice, likely composed around the same time period where The Stranger’s Child is set, references to homosexual relationships within this rigid social/sexual structure).

But that is the point at which my appreciation for the artistry of Hollinghurst ends and my disconnect with the novel begins.  In scenes such as the one quoted above or later on, when descendents of Daphne Sawle try to pry apart the mystery surrounding Cecil’s connection with their grandmother and great-uncle, Hollinghurst writes eloquently, he depicts carefully and accurately, yet ultimately despite the beautiful prose, the story feels too clinical for my tastes.  There is a lot of great technique, yet there is no real “soul” to this complex, expertly-woven narrative.  I am not one of those readers who have to have “likable” characters be a requisite for enjoying a novel, yet there is nothing for me to latch onto here.  The society depicted is one that I’ve loathed ever since I was an undergraduate history student and had to read detailed social histories of English society from the 17th to early 20th centuries (it also influenced me to switch my research focus to modern German cultural history).  Hollinghurst describes only too well a society whose hypocrisies regarding gender, race, nationality, and class have not endeared itself to me.  It is ironic that in writing about how certain class and sexual customs were repressed in this repulsive milieu that I find some of the antipathy transferred from that to the work itself.  It is not a fair assessment of the work, some might argue, but it is an honest one.  The Stranger’s Child does not work for me because it achieves too much, delves too deep into the workings of a societal world-view that is antithetical to my own.  This is not as much a condemnation of the work as it is a back-handed compliment.  It pushes all sorts of buttons that lesser works could not accomplish.  The Stranger’s Child certainly is not my favorite out of the five novels nominated for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, but it certainly is among the strongest and most well-developed of the finalists.

This review was originally posted on Gogol’s Overcoat in March 2012.

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