The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

When all the world was gay…

😦

I normally start a review with a little blurb giving an idea of what the book’s about. Unfortunately, despite having read 53% of this immensely overlong tome, I’m not at all sure if it’s about anything much at all. And I’m not enthusiastic enough to read the other 47% in the hopes of finding out.

It starts off pretty well, with a lengthy section set before World War 1. Young George Sawle has invited a fellow student from Cambridge to visit his family. Cecil Valance is already making a name for himself as a poet and George’s younger sister Daphne is romantically thrilled at the idea of meeting him. It’s quickly clear however that she will have to compete with her brother for Cecil’s attentions. At every opportunity the two of them, Cecil and George, go off to find a place they can be private together for a bit of still-illicit rumpy-pumpy. This doesn’t stop the lovely Cecil from flirting with 16-year-old Daphne and even on one occasion sexually assaulting her. Though maybe that was supposed to be a seduction scene – I can’t be sure. These things are often a matter of perspective. Meantime a friend of the family, Harry, whom everyone thinks is courting Daphne’s widowed mother, is in fact attempting to seduce Daphne’s other brother, Hubert.

It’s beautifully written and very evocative, not only of the period, but of all the books that have already been written about that period. Brideshead Revisited and The Go-Between sprang immediately to my mind and other reviews mention Forster, Woolf, DH Lawrence, et al. Is it derivative, then? I’d say certainly, though I gave him the benefit of thinking it’s deliberately so. The idea that all the men were either actively gay or being pursued by gay men seemed a bit unlikely on a purely statistical basis, but I made allowances for fictional licence. At this point I thought it had the potential to be excellent.

Then suddenly it skips forward to 1926. Cecil, our main character, is dead. And yet there’s still 80% of the book to go. Not to worry! George is now married though still gay. Daphne is married too, but wants to have sex with another probably gay man, whom, let’s be honest, George wouldn’t mind having sex with either. But please don’t be thinking Hollinghurst discriminates – Daphne is also hit upon by a gay woman. I was still interested enough at this point since some of the original characters were still central, and this section is largely about how they all felt about Cecil, alive and dead. And the writing is still beautiful.

Then whoops! 40% and suddenly we leap forward again, this time to around 1960, I think. And all of a sudden we have two new central characters, Peter and Paul. They’re both gay, you’ll be amazed to learn. The descendants of the original families are still around but they’re mostly new to the reader too, since many of the original characters are now dead.

I simply lost interest at this point. Long descriptions of Paul’s job at a bank and Peter’s life as a master at a prep school did nothing for me, and frankly, just as much as it’s unrealistic to have no gay characters in fiction, it’s equally silly for the vast majority of the men to be gay. Perhaps it’s an attempt to redress the balance, but balance is a tricky thing – it’s so easy to lose, and credibility along with it. But much more importantly than that, there appears to be very little connecting plot holding the various sections together. Yes, Cecil’s house appears each time and yes, some characters continue to be related to him, but more distantly with each passing time jump. I suspect Hollinghurst may be making points about how society’s treatment of gay men changed over the last century, and perhaps also about how the reputations of poets tend to fluctuate as each new generation of critics re-assesses them. Maybe if I was willing to read the other six hours’ worth (according to my Kindle) all would become clear, but, I ask myself, do I care enough to do that? And I answer – nope. Oh, well. Still, it’s beautifully written.

It probably deserves four stars for the quality of the characterisation and lovely prose, but since it bored me into abandonment, one star is all it gets.

This was the winner of the inaugural People’s Choice poll, but since it was my fault for buying the thing back in 2012, I promise I don’t hold it against you, people. At least it’s off my TBR now. 😉

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

54 thoughts on “The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

    • Must admit I do get tired of books that seem to think having sex is the most important thing humans ever do! And I think I felt that way even when I was young – I don’t think it’s a post-menopausal reaction… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Oh dear. I applaud you for getting over the halfway mark, even though you weren’t enjoying it. That’s some extreme determination there. I probably would have given up a lot earlier. Excellent review, though. Hope your next book is way better. We can’t have you sliding back into that slump!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, I must admit it was only the exercise of supreme willpower that got me over the halfway mark! Never mind, I’m sure all the short books of summer will be much more fun, and at least this one is finally off the TBR! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • It’s often the way with books that have lingered for so long on my TBR – my tastes seem to fluctuate, and books that appealed to me a few years ago now leave me scratching my head! Oh well, can’t love them all. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, the beginning sounds promising if somewhat derivative (but then is there any original story left in the world etc. etc.?). You did well to get as far as you did though. Shame. I know Hollinghurst can write well, but it sounds like this may be a bit tedious.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know, it’s hard NOT to be derivative, but this one did seem particularly so, in that early section at least. It’s my first Hollinghurst and despite the quality of the writing sadly I don’t think I’d be in a hurry to try another. Oh well, at least it’s off the TBR! 😀

      Like

  3. I did finish it though found it very slow moving. Some of the themes I really liked: the real person vs the image that people have of him; the ups and downs of fame; and the fragile nature of archival research: manuscripts and other papers get lost, books get burnt, letters are destroyed…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d probably have finished it at a different time but I’m in such a slump at the moment books that don’t grab me are getting tossed aside earlier than they otherwise would. I was only just beginning to see the themes at the point I gave up – I felt the disjointed nature of it with those massive, sudden time jumps stopped me from really feeling involved with the characters. Here today, gone tomorrow! 😀

      Like

  4. Oh dear, I seem to remember being one of the people who voted for this book, my only excuse being I’ve never read it myself, and it looked like the most interesting blurb from that particular day. You did well managing to get through 53 percent though, you have far more patience than I have.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, I forgive you, since I was clearly fooled by the blurb into buying the thing in the first place! 😉 I might have enjoyed it more if I weren’t struggling so much with heavyweight fiction at the moment. But I might not…

      Like

    • Haha, I should have listened to you at the time! 😉 But since the point is really to clear some of these older books off my TBR at last, then in that sense it was worth it…

      Like

    • I might have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t been reading it during a slump – I’m struggling so much with heavyweight fiction at the moment and I know I’m rating lower than normal. Poor books! 😉

      Like

    • Hahaha, I like to think of myself as the canary that gets sent down the mine! 😉 Tragically my slump means I’m being even meaner than usual about books that don’t grab me – and abandoning them by the dozen! It’s certainly one way of getting the TBR down… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sorry to hear this was such a disappointment, FictionFan. It goes to show you that, if the storyline doesn’t keep the reader interested, then even a fine writing style won’t be enough. You make an interesting point about the characters, too. I like it when authors include characters who are gay/of different ethnic backgrounds/etc… But if it feels forced, that defeats its own purpose, in my opinion. Hmmm….no, I think I’ll give this one a miss…

    Liked by 3 people

    • My slump didn’t help, of course – books are having to work twice as hard to keep me reading at the moment! Maybe at another time I’d have appreciated this more… but maybe not. 😉 Yes, what I look for in fiction is a society I recognise, and I’m afraid when authors try too hard to shovel in “diverse” characters it begins to feel artificial. We’ll never see diversity as “normal” until it blends in unnoticeably, if that makes sense…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m delighted you got something out of trudging through more than half of this one — it’s finally off your TBR!! I think it sounds pretty dreadful, frankly. I’d have tossed it at the wall long before then! Even beautiful prose can’t save a book when the storyline doesn’t captivate. Sorry you were disappointed, but I give you kudos for effort!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, yes, since the aim of the People Choice is to clear some of the older books off the TBR, then it was a success! 😉 I must admit I struggled pretty badly to make it even to the halfway mark – I’m so tired of books that seem to think who someone has sex with is the most important thing in their life!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad to hear it’s not just me! Must admit, despite the quality of the prose, I’m in no hurry to try any more of his books. Oh well, at least it’s off the TBR! 😀

      Like

  7. Even before you mentioned Brideshead Revisited, that was what came to my mind (which I’ll admit I still have sitting in my TBR… given to me after I watched the mini-series). At least you gave it the old college try… (and at least it’s now off your TBR!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was so derivative of all these great books already set in that period, although only in that first section. It felt more original when he started time-jumping, but unfortunately killing off characters so early in the book lost my interest! Haha, yes, since the People’s Choice is all about getting some older books off the TBR, then it worked brilliantly! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m wondering if this proves the theory that one needs to maintain a thread that connects the parts. And that thread needs to be discernible as well as one that makes the reader care enough to continue. In this case, it sounds like the thread was lost, leaving you to wonder “what’s the point?” and ultimately decide that there wasn’t one. Quite frustrating. I’m glad you put it down and moved on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • For me, definitely. As soon as Cecil and a couple of the other main characters died in WW1 at the 20% mark, my interest dropped, and all the introduction of new characters in each section simply annoyed me. And since the next jump would inevitably have meant that all the original characters would be dead, I couldn’t get up enough enthusiasm to go on. There are better ways to show how things change over time…

      Like

  9. Ha ha, one star and bored to abandonment – love it! I voted for this, because I read it a few years ago and rather enjoyed it! I do remember it being overlong and being a bit bored in the middle, but the beginning and the end were good, can’t say I remember anything though

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, I’m sure my current reading slump didn’t help – I might have struggled through to the end at a different time! Loads of people have rated it highly on Goodreads so you’re in good company. I’ll stay in the corner with the grumpy 1-starrers though… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Ah, this is so disappointing, I had high hopes for this one. I’m also fairly sure, I voted for it, so I’m glad you don’t bear too much of a grudge. Well done for getting through 53%, I’m sure you must have been tempted to give up earlier.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, I forgive you if you voted for it – after all, I was fooled into actually buying the thing! 😉 I was tempted to give up as soon as the central character was killed off at the end of the first section – the story of someone who’s dead for most of the book didn’t exactly enthral me…!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I read the whole book for my book group – we chose it when it was first published to much acclaim. Thanks for a very fair and accurate review it was an effortful slog and I wouldn’t have finished it if it had been personal reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It does seem to have very mixed reviews. Some people seem to really love it, but I must admit I can’t see why. Oh well, that’s the glory of reading – we all react differently!
      Thanks for popping in and commenting. 😀

      Like

  12. I’m sure I didn’t vote for it. Couldn’t possibly have voted for a book which sounded like Brideshead Revisited…. 😉 Ether way, not the most auspicious start for your people’s choice venture 😂 But at least the next one can’t be any worse! 😂

    Well done for giving it such a good go. 53% is admirable. And thank you for another of your witty one-starrers! 😂😂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hahaha! I’m saying nothing about the second book, except that I may have been even ruder about it… 😂 But I’m sure the third one will be great… 😉

      I must admit I’m being brutal about abandoning books at the moment – I’ve abandoned more in the last three months than I usually do in a whole year. It’s a great way to get the TBR down… 😀

      Liked by 2 people

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.