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Surrey, United Kingdom

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

I'm not quite sure how, but I have not read any Alan Hollinghurst until now.  It seems like a gross oversight and I am sure I would enjoy his novels.  Booker winner with The Line of Beauty, Somerset Maugham winner with The Swimming Pool Library - really, what's not to like?  And yet, I've never really felt inclined to read any of them.  I'm rather ashamed to admit that what really drew me to get The Stranger's Child out of the library was (in descending order): the cover, the fact it was a shiny new copy which looked pleasingly hefty and the blurb.  The blurb put me in mind of Brideshead Revisited, possibly The Cazalet series and a fair dollop of Atonement.  A good, old-fashioned family saga and a romp through gorgeous country houses in the first half of the twentieth century.  It certainly ticked a good number of my boxes.  And true to it's word, it was very enjoyable and I finished it in (for me) record time (just over two weeks - I'm not an especially fast reader and I am still coming to terms with the fact that a one year old doesn't leave you with much time, or energy, for reading).  It did remind me of Brideshead, well, certainly the first part did when we got to know Cecil, Daphne and George, but also the character of Paul Bryant brought to mind Charles Ryder - rather unpleasant and distinctly unlikeable, not to mention that unsettling sycophancy and fantasism.  What I found particularly clever was the way Hollinghurst shifted between the different parts of the novel.  There was no great exposition about how many years had passed, or how these people connect with the previous storylines, but it was never confusing.  It just flowed and I think this is to be commended.  All too often you get the feeling the author enjoys making you stumble around trying to work out what the heck is going on, but Hollinghurst balances this perfectly - you don't feel it is being explained to you, nor do you feel it is long-drawn out and un-explained.  I'm not explaining this very well...but you get my point that the shift in time, central character etc in the novel's separate parts is handled with skill and without compromising the story-telling.
The only problem with the novel is that it, well, it just sort of peters out.  So much so that I actually wondered if I was missing a final chapter (always a worry with library books, I don't know why) and it took me a few minutes to realise that no, that was it.  A couple of days on and I have come to terms with it - and I almost like that it left me feeling that way.  After all, life doesn't have a tidy ending, does it?  We don't finish any stage of our lives thinking 'great, that's all sorted then, nothing left over for the next generation to worry about.'  It also gives you the chance to use the old grey cells, and think about what you have read.  What did I learn through these characters?  What did I learn about myself and my own family?  Of course, this will be different for every reader and we will never know the truth about the Valances, Keepings et al.  And for once, I am quite happy with that.

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