A pond full of tadpoles: memory and memorialization in Alan Hollinghurst's "A Stranger's Child"

In The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst explored the iconoclasm of the Thatcher years. But in A Stranger's Child, he seems to portray England as a country self-defeatingly focused on its past

For some generations now, novels largely set in large English houses have tended to strike an elegaic tone, and A Stranger's Child does not buck this trend. An investigation of the uncertain artistic and sexual legacy of the fictional World War One poet Cecil Valance, it has many characteristic Hollinghurst qualities – an acute feeling for the nuances of group interaction, a sense of terrible social anxieties masterfully held in check, and an intensely English flavour of – to quote The Line of Beauty – “mingled longing and satire.” Also in evidence are Hollinghurst's fascination with upper-class families and his Jamesian alertness for conversational subtexts.

A Stranger's Child takes place in the years 1913, 1926, 1967, 1980, and 2008. This temporal structure, suggestive of a stage play, focuses us on the disorientating nature of the passage of time – we seem to see England dwindle into a place obsessed with its past, even as we feel that past being irretrievably lost. It's always alarming to run into an old acquaintance one has not seen in over a decade, and the characters in A Stranger's Child repeatedly inflict a similar awkwardness on the reader, the book's lurches through time drawing our attention to the way English people of high station grow more formidable with age, gaining extra layers of crustiness, and the way the impulses of one generation can take on the weight of immemorial tradition for the next.

If A Stranger's Child is less satisfying than Hollinghurst's great novel set in the 1980s, The Line of Beauty, it's partly because, although “Seize the Day” is the Valance family motto, no character in A Stranger's Child has the same knack for seizing the day as The Line of Beauty's Nick Guest – Cecil Valance comes closest, but dies in 1916, so that for the rest of the novel we are conscious of him only as an absence.

Nick Guest remains Hollinghurst's most impressive character, his social skills such that, when a few hours after having sex in a public toilet he dances with Margaret Thatcher, both actions seem utterly plausible and driven by a similar impulse, an amoral and disinhibited hunger for social inclusion. Nor does A Stranger's Child contain any character as perfect as Gerald Fedden, the Tory backbencher from The Line of Beauty, with his genial ruthlessness, habit of quoting Lewis Carroll, and “frowning moping manner of comprehending the feeling of others while being quite untouched and even lightly repelled by them.”

Both Guest and Fedden are inflated and then crushed by the changes of the 1980s – “there's a sort of reverse social gravity, these days, isn't there,” Nick says at one point – enabling Hollinghurst to explore what English society gained and lost in the dynamic Thatcher years, while providing an understated exploration of the spiritual dangers of individual prosperity.

By contrast, the England of A Stranger's Child seems oddly static, none of the characters showing the energy or inclination to break free of their predestined roles. Most of them seem both trapped and, as time goes on, increasingly warped by their class background – a process that may be realistic but which I still found distressing. The entire latter half of the twentieth century appears as a time of slow decay, insularity, and cultural insecurity, as if England is being devoured by its own heritage industry. By the end all the characters in A Stranger's Child seem to have become academics or media personalities. All this may just reflect that Hollinghurst is here less concerned with the history of the century than with the way the past fades from memory as it is memorialized – which is a fair point, although an idea rather apt to get in the way of the historical novelist.

Hollinghurst's vision of 1913 does not much subvert the cinematically-reinforced notion of the time before the Great War as a lost idyll, when the English courted each other on picturesque estates -- but is entertainingly imbued with comic tension by a widespread failure to interpret the signs of Cecil Valance's and George Sawle's homosexuality. Cecil's dialog is heavy with innuendo, e.g. “You'd be amazed what one can find to do, even at a suburban railway station.” I was more convinced by Hollinghurst's account of 1967 – the year when, among other significant cultural developments, homosexuality was legalized in the UK. One revealing scene is a discussion by the staff of a prep school about which recent popular novels constitute suitable reading for boys. The school setting itself is extremely evocative, with boys singing old British anthems of naval supremacy while planes from a nearby U.S. airbase roar overhead. But once events moved beyond 1967, I was disappointed not to be presented with more evidence of cultural change – and by the end of the novel, it seemed surprising to me that none of its younger generations of gay men had managed to surpass Cecil in sexual self-confidence.

“Was the era of hearsay about to give way to an age of documentation?” one character asks in 1967. From this point on, the younger characters are all intent on digging up Cecil's secrets, the older characters on guarding them – even if they no longer necessarily remember them very clearly. It is George Sawle who in 1980 gives the only candid interview about Cecil. George is now an old history professor, still in the closet about his homosexuality, and I laughed out loud at the words he utters while contemplating the fascinating tadpoles in his back garden – “Wriggly little buggers!” Since this is the last line of dialog George speaks in the book, and given the resemblance of tadpoles to sperm, George is probably not only talking about tadpoles, which become a powerful image of the queer energy that, unlike in Hollinghurst's earlier novels, is here often sublimated.

The sexual secrets in The Line of Beauty raise the plot stakes because sex scandals terminated the careers of so many Thatcherite MPs, but by the end of A Stranger's Child, Cecil's predilections are a matter of historical curiosity only. As the novel progresses it becomes increasingly focused on its own beginnings, a structure that makes it hard for the characters to develop rather than just decline. “Disconcerted” is one of the book's characteristic adjectives – one character early on is “disconcerted” by a glass of Champagne, as always with Hollinghurst a cleverly accurate word choice, yet also an indication that in this world there isn't much cause for celebration. While Hollinghurst's stylistic strengths are more than enough to compensate for the gloominess, as a vision of England the book sometimes seems – to use a distinction made in the book itself – less an elegy than a threnody or “song of mourning for life itself.”

About the author

James Warner is the author of All Her Father's Guns, a Bay Area novel, published in 2011 by Numina Press. His short stories have appeared in many publications. His personal website is here

His openDemocracy column is Standing Perpendicular