This tells a riveting and complex saga with profound insight, plenty of intrigue and dashes of wit. From the first dozen pages, even the first few sentences, I was drawn into a love affair with the writing of this book. I read large chunks more than once because the writing is breathtaking, but leisurely: I wanted to capture the craft and jot down many quotes (see the end of this for a long selection).
Having finished, I still love it, even though the quality was not quite maintained. It is a story told in five parts and spanning a century. The first two parts are superb (and have echoes of Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23328741) and Byatt's "The Children's Book" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/111385225)); the third is good, and the last two are too different to fit well with what’s gone before, and the ending is unsatisfyingly abrupt. It's not so much that the later sections are bad as the fact they just didn't "fit" the rest of the book and suffer in comparison with what precedes them. It almost felt as if they were there to bang home the themes of truth, memories, aging, changing mores etc, just in case we didn't notice them in the earlier sections. It's another way in which it resembles "The Children's Book": the best aspects are stunning, but it is also very flawed
Although Hollinghurst is well known as a gay writer (both himself, and his books), and this does feature gay relationships and illustrate how attitudes have changed over the last hundred years, it felt like a family saga, rather than a gay book.
The key character appears to be a budding poet, Cecil Valence. He enters the story in 1913 as the wealthy university friend of middle class George Sawle. All the characters in the coming hundred years and 500+ pages have some sort of connection with him, but really it is George’s sister Daphne who is the pivot of the tangled stories. And they are tangled: there is a web of relationships, with lies, suppressed longings, and secrets, so one is often unsure who fancies who and who knows what about whom.
Subsequent sections are in the mid 1920s, mid 1960s, around 1990 and the present day (2011/12). The first two sections have a strong sense of place: the Sawle’s suburban home, Two Acres, and then the Valence’s enormous Victorian estate, Corley Court. These sections have strong echoes of “Brideshead”, yet don’t feel plagiarised. In later sections, the characters and plot are rather more adrift.
I enjoyed the deliberate obfuscation of the sudden time jumps at the start of each section, e.g. not being immediately sure who labels such as "husband" and "dead brother" applied to, or who “Mrs Jacobs” was (not always the most obvious one). I just didn't enjoy the characters, style and milieu of the later parts quite as much.
The Valences and Sawles are the main characters – along with their respective homes (again, like Brideshead). A new wife “felt she wouldn’t have chosen it, felt it had in a way chosen her”.
The changing zeitgeist and the aging and maturing of the characters are generally very good: insightful, amusing and plausible.
The opening word (“she”) refers to Daphne, a central character throughout, though not always the most important. As she says of herself in old age, “I never pretended to be a wonderful writer, but I have known some very interesting people.”
The contrasts between what people say, feel, mean and are thought to mean by others are clearly but delicately marked, especially in the first section, when Daphne is juggling sibling rivalry with the first stirrings of attraction, whilst still very naïve about such things. Other characters have things to hide (relationships, drink, money problems). Daphne often “felt again she was missing something, but was carried along by the excitement of making [adult] conversation”.
Class difference, deference, aspiration and the consequences of social mobility (up and down) are obvious themes that affect all the characters. Is “unthinking social confidence” the same as being a snob? One woman had “a slight bewildered totter among the grandeur that her daughter now had to pretend to take for granted” (so much summed up in that pithy sentence) and another “hadn’t been born into [X’s] world, even though she now wore its lacquered carapace”. At the other end of the spectrum, a humble bank clerk feels socially awkward from knowing, via people’s financial circumstances, that they may not be all that they seem.
TRUTH and WRITING
More importantly, several characters write (poetry, biography, memoirs, criticism). Questions of “what is the truth?”, “who knows what?” and the way we edit our own and other people’s histories weave through the book and are pertinent to all the main characters, especially those burdened with secrets (whether their own or those of others). Memoirs are “not fiction… but a sort of poetical reconstruction”. Are such edits usually unconscious, and if not, are they justifiable? They certainly make it hard for biographers, one of whom complains, “People wouldn’t tell you things, and they then blamed you for not knowing them.” Then he realised “The writer of a life didn’t only write about the past, and that the secrets he dealt in might have all kinds of consequences in other lives, in years to come” – and this aspect is perhaps the dominant theme of the book, creating a Russian-doll like structure of nested histories.
The subtle dynamics of covert relationships are carefully drawn, especially early on, managing to create a degree of ambiguity and at the same time, giving the reader the feeling of being “in the know”. Later on, there is additional dramatic tension from the characters’ own doubts about some things, and even the reader’s doubts about which characters know what: George was “amused by its [a poem] having a secret and sadly reassured by the fact it could never be told.”
I feel as if this ought
to be a major theme, and possibly Hollinghurst would like it to be, but it never felt like a big deal to me. Yes, several characters are gay or bisexual, and some are secretive about their desires, but the desire and the secrecy seemed more pertinent than the sex of the people they were attracted to. Having sections set in different periods does illustrate how society has become more accepting, but maybe that's just society growing up?
AGING and MATURITY
The main characters span a variety of ages, which presents a challenge that Hollinghurst rises to. In particular, the Edwardian Daphne’s teenage desires and anxieties are wonderfully done. When offered a cigar, “She really didn’t want the cigar, but she was worried by the thought of missing a chance at it. It was something none of her friends had done, she was pretty sure of that.” So she took it “with a feeling of shame and duty and regret”. Whether it was a cigar or something else, I’m sure we can all empathise with Daphne’s mixed emotions. Similarly, being in on (partial) adult knowledge isn’t always what one wants or expects, “the joy of discovery was shadowed by the sense of being left behind”. Pondering her first kiss, she “savoured the shock of it properly… With each retelling, the story… made her heart race a fraction less… and her reasonable relief at this gradual change was coloured with a tinge of indignation”.
Several characters drink too much, though some are more aware of it than others: “the tray of bottles, some friendly, some over-familiar, one or two to be avoided”.
The opening chapter is particularly entrancing: it captures the anticipation of the forthcoming evening, coupled with the evening light, in a series of subtly beautiful images about relationships, awkwardness, and ease, presaging all that is to come. There are wonderful images and great insight throughout. It might be thought to be overwritten, but I enjoyed the detail.
Who is the eponymous "stranger's child"? For a while that question niggled (it's a phrase from Tennyson), and there are one or two candidates, but later I felt it didn't really matter, and was perhaps just a metaphor for each child's uniqueness, and, in some respects, their unknowability.
• “Something of the time of day held her, with its hint of a mystery she had so far overlooked… It was the long still moment when the hedges and borders turned dusky and vague, but anything she looked at closely… seemed to give itself back to the day with a secret throb of colour.”
• “The slight asperity that gave even her nicest remarks an air of sarcasm.”
• Jonah was only 15, had never acted as a valet (or even observed one) and was told to “unpack… and arrange the contents ‘convincingly’. This was the word, enormous but elusive, that Jonah had had on his mind all day… gripping him again with a subtle horror.” Later, he had “The strange feeling of being intimate with someone who was simultaneously unaware of him.”
• Even the legitimate offspring of a respectable dead father can feel it a social handicap in Edwardian times: “He felt a twinge of shame and regret at having no father, and for ever having to make do.”
• Outrageous letters were like “Pompeiian obscenities, hiding just out of view behind the curtains and in the shadows of the inglenook.”
• “Records were indeed marvels, but they were only tiny helpings of the ocean of music.”
• A 16-year old “picked up her glass and drained it with a complicated feeling of sadness and satisfaction that was thoroughly endorsed by Wagner’s restless ballad.”
• For some reason, this tickled me, “… said Daphne experimentally”.
• A couple had “their little myth of origins, its artificiality part of its erotic charm”.
• “The remark [a compliment] seemed to have curved in the air, to have set out towards some more obvious and perhaps deserving target, and then swooped wonderfully home.”
• “His feelings absorbed him so completely that he seemed to float towards them, weak with excitement, across a purely symbolic landscape.”
• A woodland pond was “a loose ellipse of water”.
• He had “a very particular way of looking at her… of holding her eye at moments in their talk, so that another unspoken conversation seemed also to be going on… She felt a certain thrilled complacency at the choice he had secretly made.”
• “moaning with a lover’s pangs, as well as with a certain sulky relief at this tragic postponement.”
• “spread some butter on her toast, though really her smothered anxiety had squeezed up her appetite to nothing.”
• Of a somewhat back-handed compliment: “her involuntary German air of meaning rather more.”
• She “held back, with a thin fixed smile, in which various doubts and questions were tightly hidden.”
• A dining room “with its gaudy décor, its mirrors and gilding” was “like some funereal fairground”!
• People who had loved and feuded came together to share memories of someone who had died, “submissively clutching their contributions. A dispiriting odour of false piety and dutiful suppression seemed to rise from the table and hang like cabbage-smells in the jelly-mould domes of the ceiling”.
• Tact required a “courteous saunter around an unmentionable truth” and “a mist of delicacy had obscured the subject”.
• “The dark oak door of the chapel loomed, seemed to summon and dishearten the visitor with the same black stare… Chapel silence, with its faint penumbra of excluded sounds.”
• They “looked more like colleagues than a couple” because “their hands seemed somehow locked away from any mutual use”.
• “Bland evasiveness had slowly assumed the appearance of natural forgiveness.”
• He “turned to her with that unstable mixture of indulgence and polite bewilderment and mocking distaste that she had come to know and dread and furiously resent.”
• After one character’s boorish outburst at a children’s party “a collective effort at repair had been made”, one couple “having an ideally boring conversation about shooting to show that things were under control”!
• After dinner, there was “talk of a game. Those who were keen half smothered their interest, and those who weren’t pretended blandly that they didn’t mind.”
• “It was the most unapproachable room in the house… dark with prohibitions. His father’s anger… had withdrawn into it, like a dragon to its lair.”
• “His features seemed rather small and provisional.”
• “The front door was wide open, as though the house had surrendered itself to the sunny day.”
• “At this indefinable time of day… The time, like the light, seemed somehow viscous.”
• A lodger’s room: “Nothing went with anything else. They had the air of things not wanted elsewhere in the house… the brown wool rug made by Mr Marsh himself at what must have been a low moment.”
• The PE teacher “dressed in sports kit at improbable times of day, he was adored by many of the boys, and instinctively avoided by others.”
• “In the deepening shadows between pools of candlelight, the guests… conversations stretching and breaking, in an amiable jostle… like a flickering frieze, unknowable faces all bending willingly to something perhaps none of them individually would have chosen to do.”
• “eagerness struggling with some entrenched habit of disappointment.”
• Daphne’s copious bag had “the family trait of being shapelessly bulky – too bulky, really, to count as a handbag. It admitted as much in its helpless slump.”
• “The upstairs windows seemed to ponder blankly on the reflections of clouds.”
• “The perfect but impersonal dentures that gave their own helpless eagerness to an old man’s face” – the same man with “the eagerness and charm, the smile confidently friendly but not hilarious, the note of respect with a hint of conspiracy.”
• “Her sense of humour is really no more than an irritable suspicion that someone else might find something funny.”
• A house heaving with clutter creates “a worrying sense of the temporary grown permanent” (a lesson for me).
• “The air of mildly offended blankness, which is the default expression of any congregation.”
• “X and his computer lived together in intense co-dependency, as if they shared a brain, his arcane undiscriminating memory backed up on the machine and perpetually enlarged by it.”