I have absolutely no idea where I got my tenth book of this month’s 12 in 12 Challenge from. The book is The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst and I found a paperback copy of this on my to-be-read bookcase when I was looking for historical novels to fulfil this month’s challenge. I have no idea how long I have had it or where it came from or even why I acquired it but I am so glad that I did. I found this book compelling reading.
The book starts in 1913 when one young man, George, brings his friend from university home to meet his family. Cecil Vallance is a poet and heir to a title and he dazzles George and his sister Daphne, eventually writing her a poem that will become his best known work. The book then moves on in a series of sections, each moving nearer to the present. In all of them Cecil, his relationships, his poetry and his family feature and we see how the world and the family slowly reinvent the events of that summer and reinterpret Cecil’s life depending on the social conditions of the time.
The book centres on the artistic and literary world but it uses it to explore all sorts of issues that have arisen during that period – the attitude to gay sex, the place of women, the legacy of the wars, and the commodification of culture and celebrity. There are no flashbacks so that each time that you move on to a new section the author has to let you know what has happened to the characters you have got to know previously and also introduce new ones. I found this easy to follow and had no problems with keeping up with the relationships and events.
The book also shows how different viewpoints and additional knowledge can change your view of people. One person will reveal that someone has had a traumatic war and then we can see why he behaves as he does. Another will reveal that a character has been found to be less than honest and then we will have to re-evaluate their motives. Lots of people have secrets, some of which the reader knows but the characters don’t, and many of these are not revealed by the end of the book. The message of this novel is that we don’t really know anybody and that our views about people will change as we know more about them or as our life changes. I found my opinion of characters changing as the book progressed.
The author has kept the major events of the century out of the narrative so we meet people before and after wars but not during them. The sections usually take place over a few days and often at gatherings of characters.
The book is beautifully written and cleverly put together. I found it was gripping and I was very invested in knowing more about the characters. An excellent read.