“The Stranger’s Child”

September 5, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Posted in Fiction | Leave a comment

One of the fascinations of The Stranger’s Child is in working out what Alan Hollinghurst means by the title.  It could indeed be followed by the subtitle: Closeted Gays of Upper-Class Britain.  This book has a vast cast of characters, and so many of them are gay that we start to realize Hollinghurst is trying to tell us something on a different level.

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The Stranger’s Child is an ingeniously inverted meta-biography.  It begins with the visit of Cecil Valance to the home of a school friend.  We see him through the eyes of various occupants of the house, and, through the rest of the book, other people who have become interested in him over the next 70-odd years.  These include actual biographers.  Tension results when possibly inaccurate perceptions and imperfect memories meet with the desires of writers who want an objective portrait of a subject they haven’t met.

It’s like life, isn’t it?

To my thinking, the title The Stranger’s Child alludes to more than the few characters in the story whose parentage is in some dispute.  In a sense, it’s about a literary work.  The poem everyone memorizes but nobody fully understands, though everyone assumes it can be used to gain insight into the poet.  Even more so, the biography produced by an unlikeable researcher who certainly isn’t part of the family, but may understand that family in some ways better than it does itself.

So what is the deal with the gayness of it all?  I think it’s a great metaphor for man’s secret side.  On the surface, inquiring minds want to know who is and who isn’t.  Underneath is a sense that, try as we might, we can never fully know another person.  We may be close to someone and have the wrong idea entirely.  What is someone like, really?  Who decides?

One of the great things that Hollinghurst does with this book is to show the sweep of history:  the way things change and crumble over time.  It’s done with a touch of humor.  All these people, so full of passion and intrigue in their youth, grow into crotchety old dears.  The grand houses are demolished and documents are found or lost.  In a hundred years, will anyone remember?


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