Thursday, 17 May 2012

Not Strange and Definitely not Childish

I don't receive many review copies of books, so when I do get the odd one, I try to read and review it as quickly as other commitments allow.  That's not through any feeling of obligation, but simply because I feel it's good manners to show interest in a book I've actually requested (unsolicited freebies are another matter entirely...).  Which is why I feel slightly guilty that today's book was unceremoniously pushed to the bottom of the pile by all the IFFP longlist reading I've been doing.  When that book actually turns out to be a really good one too, well, then I feel both guilty and silly.  Time to make amends ;)

Alan Hollinghurst's novel The Stranger's Child (review copy from Pan Macmillan Australia) was longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize but (somewhat controversially) didn't make it onto the shortlist.  It's a fairly long book, 564 pages in my version, but it never feels lengthy at all.  It's a wonderful creation, a novel in five parts showing the nature of reality and memory, and how they change as time passes.

We begin in 1913, at a modest country house in England called 'Two Acres'.  This is the home of the Sawle family, and the younger son, George, a student at Cambridge, is bringing a friend home to stay.  Little do the Sawles know that the visit of Cecil Valance will have a profound effect on the family's future - and it isn't just George who will fall under the spell of the charismatic Cecil.

We stay at 'Two Acres' just long enough to see George and Cecil's relationship blossom, and to witness the stirrings of interest in George's teenage sister Daphne, before the writer whisks us a decade or so into the future, where we re-encounter some of the people we met in the first part and get to know some new friends.  And this sets the scene for the rest of the book; just as we start to get comfortable with a certain set of people in a given era, the room spins, and we find ourselves whisked into the future...

Each time we move on, the characters have aged, and the focus has shifted slightly to the next generation.  If we take the example of Daphne, we are shown a lovestruck girl, a young mother, a middle-aged woman and a frail, elderly matriarch - all in the space of a few hundred pages.  It's a wonderful idea, and it's a credit to the writer that he pulls off this constant change of scenery without losing the reader's interest.

There is much more to The Stranger's Child than some clever sleight of hand though.  The novel is an examination of the notion of reality, exploring just what it is that we mean by 'history' and 'facts'.  The key to the story is Cecil, a minor poet whose immortalising of 'Two Acres' is to fascinate the coming generations.  With the truth behind the poem hidden, lost or deliberately concealed, time begins to blur the edges of the picture, leaving those who are interested in the truth (and there are a lot of them in this book) to hunt around for any remnants of history they can dredge up from disorganised archives or fading memories.

The more information comes to light, however, the less it all seems to correspond to what actually happened (and the reader, as an eye witness, feels that they are privy to the 'real' truth).  Documenting the past accurately is shown to be an impossibility, something tainted by the perspective you choose to take.  Those wanting to dig up juicy details, including several biographers of Valance's life, have preconceived ideas, notions they are loath to disregard, even in the face of contrary information.  The people who actually know what happened also have their own agenda - often preferring to conceal the very information the biographers are desperate to obtain...

One of the central issues of the novel is the one that family and friends prefer to cover up, and that is Cecil's homosexuality.  In a time when sleeping with other men could lead directly to jail, the nascent relationship between George and his poet friend was one to conceal at all costs, especially from their respective families.  As we progress through the twentieth century, finally arriving in the more 'enlightened' twenty-first century, attitudes towards homosexuality change, first in legal terms, later in more widespread public acceptance.  But does this justify a biographer's desperate attempt to ferret out the truth about a long-dead poet's sexual preferences?  The question the reader is confronted with towards the end of the novel is whether the dead, especially those who have achieved some sort of fame, have the right to take their secrets with them to the grave.

I had a quick look at the longlist for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, and (as expected), I hadn't actually read any of them.  However, if there are really five or six books better than The Stranger's Child on that list, I would be amazed - either it was a stellar year for Anglophone literature, or the judges messed up massively.  With every page, I enjoyed it more and more, and I'll definitely be having a look at Hollinghurst's back catalogue to see what I've been missing out on.

It's just a shame that it took me so long to get around to reading this one ;)