Don’t got down to the betting shops on this recommendation for in all the years I have followed the Booker, I have only ever agreed with
the judges twice. Alan Hollinghurst is, to misquote The Observer, ‘a gay [great] English stylist in full maturity’. A previous book, In the Line of Beauty, won the Booker Prize a while ago. In this latest novel, A Stranger’s Child we are visiting a world that has to all intents and purposes vanished: weekend parties; servants and cocktails, a heady mix of the aristocracy and the middle classes where etiquette mattered and people
wrote thank you letters. We follow the lives and fortunes of the Valance family and the Sawles – Clive Valance having burst through the lives of the Sawles like a comet, and all that follows thereon is like the tail – full of ice and light, and a bit damaging if you get too close.
At the beginning of the book, Daphne Sawle is an impressionable damsel in the early part of the twentieth century, her brother George brings Clive Valance, a Cambridge university friend and poet for the weekend, and we, the readers become like some peripheral invited guests.
George is already smitten by the poet and by the end of the weekend Daphne believes she is as well. And Clive writes a poem in her autograph book upon which hangs many a tale. Over several decades, each part of the book being approximately a decade later, we are still following Daphne, and are still guests at weekend parties, or birthday parties or at interviews and finally at a Memorial Service.
It is a clever book, full of sturm und drang, and the concupiscence of same sex partnerships and the muddles of marriage when gay men marry women, it has infidelities and constancies and at the opening of each section, the reader is teased into the scene not quite knowing who is who – just like a party where everyone is mildly related, by marriage or profession or past and you spend a while working it all out – though everything is ‘hidden in full view’ – at least to the attentive reader.
Another quirk, and this quite brilliant, the characters repeat themselves – a bon mot becomes a trope and finally replaces the truth since the truth is somewhat uglier and more discreditable than the memory. It is both very clever and realistically touching.
So Duncan, Clive’s younger brother makes an early observation about the poetry, the one written in the autograph book, saying that it is odd that this most famous poem has been written by someone who owned about 30,000 acres about a house called Two Acres.
And indeed, Corley Court and Two Acres figure as importantly and as often as the characters that inhabit them – Corley Court in Berkshire being the family seat of the Valances and Two Acres, the suburban dwelling of the Sawles.
Daphne also realigns her life story, and even at the end although everything has been exposed in a biography, the reader remains unsure whether this is because the biographer extrapolated more from chance conversations than he should have, or whether it is in fact the truth – and it is explained that this ‘could have been because she [Daphne] wanted to keep it to herself’.
We travel with these families through the pages of history, the changes in the law regarding same sex congress all the way to same sex partnerships, the changes in social life after two world wars and the changing fortunes of the two estates and over it all hovers a sexual tension as anticipatory and trembling as the membrum virile of the proto-hero Clive, himself.
It is an excellent read.