Michael Amherst

Having it both ways

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A new paperback edition of The Stranger’s Child is released today. Michael Amherst reviews the book.

The failure of Alan Hollinghurts’s The Stranger’s Child to make the Booker shortlist has been met with widespread shock. Yet arguably the greater shock is why the book ever received such rave reviews in the first place. The examination of memory; challenging the truth of history and biography, depicting them as shams, created fictions based on the preoccupations of the surviving participants; the impossibility of things enduring – none of this is new. Hollinghurst’s fellow nominee, Julian Barnes, tackles similar themes in The Sense of an Ending, which did make the shortlist, while JM Coetzee and Damon Galgut do the same with their novels Summertime and In a Strange Room, shortlisted in 2009 and 2010, respectively.

Unfortunately for Hollinghurst not only have others addressed these questions but they’ve also done it better. The Stranger’s Child has none of the warmth and generosity of Coetzee’s novel; none of the humanity of Galgut’s. Detailing a series of interviews with those close to the fictional John Coetzee, the discrepancies in the memories and accounts within Summertime are coloured by exasperation, by the small, inevitable fractures that occur when two people brush together or past each other in life. Coetzee appears to give his characters the benefit of the doubt. In The Stranger’s Child the discrepancies are the result of mere self-serving fabrication. Everyone appropriates Cecil Valance for their own ends and to fit their own narratives – be it Daphne writing herself in as the love object in some quixotic romance, or the falsifier Paul reading his homosexuality into every life and climbing Valance as so many rungs up the social ladder. Even George Sawle, Cecil’s lover and the real object of his poem ‘Two Acres’, re-writes the past, the only difference being that he edits himself out.

The repeated shifts in time between each section are effective in one way but also leave the reader with little sense of investment in many of the characters. Sadly for us the character we do end up spending some considerable time with is Paul, who Christopher Tayler describes as “a lower-wattage character” and he rightly blames this for some of the drop in narrative pressure. Elsewhere, Hari Kunzru observes in the Guardian that this is a nostalgic book, in which “the modern world appears to have few positive qualities.” Yet there is nothing so very endearing about the novel’s earlier characters, either; so the reader is left in the predicament in which the novel satirises the early Twentieth Century whilst at the same time bemoaning that we don’t inhabit it anymore. One could claim the same dilemma was evident in The Line of Beauty: for all Nick Guest’s sycophancy and social climbing the reader could never quite rid themselves of the impression that the author was every bit as in love with the rich and powerful, the wealth and opulence as Nick was himself.

The ultimate problem, with The Stranger’s Child, however, is that it tries to do too much. The poem ‘Two Acres’ offers a useful device for describing the problem of interpretation: does intention and the author’s own life serve as a crucial part of intention? Yet, if it does, are we not faced with the crisis that every biography, every act of history is itself a fiction and therefore obscures rather than reveals? And in such circumstances how are we to judge artistic value if all we’re doing is judging the terms of our own critical reception? Such relativism permeates much of the novel. Peter’s attendance at a “small rally” to save St Pancras station is a nod to the widely hailed success of its restoration and as a result a comment on both the shallowness and transience of taste. But one can ask whether this does not also apply to social mores, morality and sexual identity. Arguably the problem of Cecil and George’s relationship is not so much the repression of gay history but a modern refusal to accept or define things on their own terms, a need to medicalise and label sexuality rather than accept the contemporary definition of an attachment ‘in the Cambridge way’.

It seems to me Hollinghurst wants it both ways – to describe the failures of history and memory but doing so by appealing to the ‘truth’ of a denied homosexual past. Yet this is a circular argument, for the very terms of his depiction imply that there may be no gay past – that to talk of such a thing we are guilty again of projecting our own terms onto a different time. This is a commendable, stimulating and thoughtful novel. It is often beautifully written, invoking classics such as Howard’s End, The Go-Between, Brideshead Revisited as well as more contemporary works, such as Atonement. But at its core lies a treatment of memory and history tackled more cogently elsewhere and a wealth of interrelated challenges to interpretation, aesthetics and even meaning. The consequent burden results in a less than satisfying whole.