Dead Poet’s Society: In His Latest Novel, The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst Tackles History

Its broad scope is both its triumph and its downfall

"The Stranger's Child."

Told in five parts that span nearly a century—from the 1910s to 2008—The Stranger’s Child (Knopf, 448 pages, $27.95) is, in terms of its scope, Alan Hollinghurst’s most ambitious effort to date. His previous four novels, including his last one, the Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty, are chamber pieces by comparison, depicting events that take place within a discrete period of time to either one man or a single homosocial group of men.

Mr. Hollinghurst’s male characters are invariably gay—a fact that has not changed with The Stranger’s Child, and, once again, those characters’ homosexuality provides the novel much of its narrative thrust. In The Stranger’s Child, the question of a character’s nebulous, seeming bisexuality in part one (he’s interested, it would seem, in both the gentleman hosting him at a country house and that gentleman’s sister) haunts the following four sections of the book.

That bisexual character, Cecil Valance, can’t be counted on to solve the mystery himself: for a large portion of the book he remains unknowable, a product merely of the thoughts George and Daphne Sawle, his two love interests, share about him. Mr. Hollinghurst is a master of obsessive desire—the monotonous patterns of thinking, the dissection of every word and gesture. In his previous work, those thought-patterns have existed in the minds of gay men in various places along the axis of liberation, from the 1990s Ecstasy playground of The Spell to the shallow closets of Thatcherite England in The Line of Beauty.

In his new novel, Mr. Hollinghurst places a surprising amount of emphasis, at least in its first section, on the thoughts and feelings of young Daphne, a character whose miscomprehension of the carnal world seems torn from Ian McEwan’s notes on Briony Tallis in Atonement, the character whose words, launched in a childish misunderstanding of her sister’s affair, destroy at least two lives. Like Briony in Atonement, Daphne recurs throughout The Stranger’s Child and her understanding, or lack thereof, of what transpired at her childhood home frames the story.

Unlike Briony, however, Daphne is more than just an observer of the novel’s early action. She’s a player in it, sharing a kiss with Cecil, the object of both her own and her brother’s affection, and receiving a poem from him that will, eventually, become a classic and garner Cecil posthumous fame. But with each of the novel’s subsequent chronological leaps, Daphne grows hazier as a character. Unwaveringly devoted to the memory of Cecil, she also indulges in a kind of romantic peregrination that, time and again, lands her in the arms of men whose ardor for women is questionable. By the novel’s conclusion, her personality—her innocence and youthful vigor—has all but vanished: she’s merely a woman who did not understand the homosexual impulse. She never gets wise—after Cecil’s death, another character recalls his “horrible posturing letters in which he seemed to be blaming the poor child for something that was really his own failing.”

Of all novelists working today, Mr. Hollinghurst is the one who has made it most difficult for others to describe a character as one who “just happens to be gay.” The Stranger’s Child’s plot, if it can be boiled down, boils down to this: researchers try to untangle whether Cecil Valance liked men or women. Nearly every male character in the book is gay or has a same-sex encounter, a device that made more sense when attempted with a close-knit circle of friends, as it was in The Spell, than in all of England and all of the 20th century, as it is here. The Stranger’s Child’s shticky double-entendres don’t help: Cecil and George share cigars “almost shockingly designed for an exclusive session a deux”; George brags to Daphne, “I’m smoking Cecil’s cigar too”; Cecil enchants his hosts by reading a poem beginning “Love comes not always in by the front door” in a tone that is described as “homiletic.”

Dead Poet’s Society: In His Latest Novel, The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst Tackles History