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The Stranger’s Child
(Picador, £20, *£17)
This epic novel, which has been seven years in the making, bears the stamp of posterity: a book that will feature in school syllabi and ‘top fives’ for decades to come. Spanning a century, it opens in 1913 on a summer’s evening brimming with romantic promise.
Cecil Valance-aristocrat, athlete, poet, dandy-has descended on a Middlesex family; the servants look on in queasy fascination and the shrewd hostess wonders which of her children’s lives he will mess up most. When the teenage Daphne breathlessly requests an autograph, Cecil (obviously Rupert Brooke) dashes off an evocative ‘is there honey still for tea?’- style poem that will be memorised by schoolboys, dissected by students and reinterpreted by competing biographers for another 100 years.
The story then leaps, to 1926, when Daphne is married (her vulnerable son, Wilfred, is a brilliant creation), to 1967, when the Valance home is a prep school-a staff meeting is the stuff of Molesworth-to the 1990s and another funny scene when the obtuse Daphne fends off a biographer, and the pre-sent day, with the mysteries of who fathered her children still unsolved. Despite the frustrating disappearance of characters when you’ve just become fond of them, they are still sufficiently developed so as not to make you feel short-changed.
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Some are destined to turn up in a subsequent era, and the technique of not giving any more than the odd clue about what has happened to them in the interim proves an engrossing and effective way of making the reader concentrate.
Literary criticism, and the awkwardness of acknowledging that a writer’s tragic death shouldn’t be what makes them great, is a running theme, as is Mr Hollingshurst’s regular hobby horse, gay politics. However, the latter is not as overwhelming-or, thankfully, nearly as graphic-as in the 2004 Booker-winning Line of Beauty; as a result, this work has more charm. Well worth the wait, it’s a treasure of a novel you’ll read more and more slowly for fear of it ending.