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The Stranger's Child: A detective story with a difference

Alan Hollinghurst's new novel is a literary caper as well as a study of a particular sector in English society.

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst. Picador
The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst. Picador

There is something, observes one of the broken-spirited younger scions of the unhappy aristocratic family in Alan Hollinghurst's latest novel, "almost surprising in a person being ... completely true to type".

That goes for the author himself, whose apparent indifference to the danger of typecasting continues to impress.

He has one subject, explored with ever greater subtlety and breadth of view, though to increasingly conventional effect, across what now amounts to five novels. The theme is the peculiar perspective and secret systems of codes and signals that English society bestows upon gay men.

The typical Hollinghurst hero is a middle-class social climber whose tendencies bring him into contact with men from many other walks of life, in something approaching the masonic fellowship of an office smoking room.

Occasionally there is a threat of humiliation and exposure - facilitated by historical settings, especially if the 1980s count as "period", as they surely must in 2004's Booker-winner The Line of Beauty.

All the same, the interest is generally less dramatic than, so to speak, documentary, Hollinghurst giving almost his full attention to the disguises that allowed gay life to flourish in the more or less recent past.

On first glance, The Stranger's Child is a different beast. It follows many characters, even taking a dutiful peek inside one or two female minds.

It is emphatically historical, beginning on the eve of the First World War and leaping forwards in increments of 10 to 20 years.

It is a literary detective story about a made-up Georgian poet. The obvious comparisons are with AS Byatt's Possession and works of generational portraiture such as Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, and it merits them.

Hollinghurst has always had an eye for social nuance, a knack for caricature, and both work well in a story about biographical intrigue.

Less predictable at the outset is his skill with pastiche. Yet the poetry of Cecil Valance ("a less neurotic - and less talented - epigone of [Rupert] Brooke") is pitched at just the right level of sonorous silliness to let us believe it could have entered Britain's collective memory in some indelible, vaguely embarrassing way.

Valance is a strapping young lordling, heir to a Victorian pile in Berkshire and a member of the Apostles, Cambridge's now very famous secret highbrow club.

He writes tumpty-tump patriotic verse full of hymns to Corley Court, his family seat and coy classical references ("Are hamadryads ever seen/ Between the dancing veils of green?"). He swaggers up mountains, throws himself into unsuitable roles in student plays and seduces nearly everyone he meets, irrespective of gender. One such victim is the suburban bourgeois George Sawle, a "cold fish" to his family, though grateful for Cecil's advances at Cambridge.

Unwisely, George invites Cecil to visit his family home in Harrow and Wealdstone. This puts the household in a tizzy, not merely that George should have found a friend at all but that he should turn out to be a real-life poet and gentleman.

Cecil, however, is a crushing presence. He fouls up the guest room, derails dinners and jovially terrorises the staff. A treasured Sawle family anecdote concerns something said to George's late father by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, met by chance on deck during a crossing to the Isle of Wight.

The remark itself is incidental -the point of the story is the family connection to so august a person.

Cecil listens, then lets slip that Tennyson was on good terms with his grandfather. "Oh, really?" Mrs Sawle exclaims, distraught. "Oh, Lord, yes," said Cecil, his loud emphasis followed by a total loss of interest; his face went blank and heavy and he turned away.

Despite this cavalier hurtfulness, Cecil is a hit. In particular, he captures the imagination of George's 16-year-old sister Daphne, who asks Cecil to sign her autograph book.

She is merely confused when he makes a rough pass at her in the garden, under cover of darkness, but more so when he leaves her book with an enormous new poem in it - "Two Acres" - named after the Sawle family house.

We jump now to the inter-war period, where we discover that Daphne is mistress of Corley Court.

She married Dudley, Cecil's brother, a nasty drunk whose "bad war" is agreed to have unbalanced his mind. Cecil himself died in France and "Two Acres" has become a classic of British war poetry, its status guaranteed by the tragic brevity of its author's life and its quotation in a speech by Churchill.

Its mawkish appeal to "Two blessed acres of English ground" now reads as a hymn to what had been worth fighting for.

To those most directly connected to it - Daphne and her husband - the poem has already assumed the dimensions of a mild curse, overshadowing the efforts of their own unhappy lives. All anyone wants to talk about is Cecil.

Indeed, the rest of the novel is chiefly concerned with the vicissitudes of his reputation and the efforts of his heirs and loved ones to shape it.

His mother commissions a fawning biography from a minor statesman whom Cecil once impressed (the nature of this "impression" is left fairly dark).

George Sawle, by now a historian with a sterile marriage, is engaged to edit Cecil's letters - this, it appears, requires a good deal of discretion.

In Corley Court's chapel an unsatisfactory statue of Cecil has been installed, smaller and neater than the living man (Hollinghurst has a weakness for slightly schematic symbolism; think, in The Line of Beauty, of Nick Guest's clanging dream about shabby back stairs in a fine country house).

So it goes - despite the general agreement that he was a mediocre poet and the more carefully guarded understanding that he wasn't much of a gentleman, Cecil is got up as an establishment icon, to be read, so his bland biographer says, "for as long as there are readers with a taste for English music, an eye for English things".

This is how Paul Bryant, a humble young provincial who has started work at a bank near Corley, takes him.

It is now the mid-Sixties and Paul is fascinated to learn that the manager at his branch is married to the daughter of Daphne and Dudley Valance, peripheral figures in the legend of Cecil Valance, whose poems he learnt at school.

That daughter, a sadistic piano instructor named Corinna, actually teaches at Corley Court, which is now a rackety prep school.

Paul gets into a relationship with another teacher there, a cheerfully dissipated young Oxford grad named Peter Rowe, and is thus introduced to some of the murkier aspects of Valance history.

Years pass and Paul drifts into literary journalism (there is a convincing sketch of the offices of the Times Literary Supplement about 1980, a couple of years before Hollinghurst himself started there - "low cubicles, walled in by rubbish".)

Paul is researching his own biography of Cecil. Very few people seem to grasp why he should trouble himself about a creaky second-rater like Valance.

The answer, of course, is that he is a bit second-rate himself, an unconsciously vulgar outsider whose efforts to penetrate the world of the Valances are poisoned by his own negative charisma. Everywhere he goes, doors shut in his face - the very fact that he likes Cecil's poetry seems to alert the more sophisticated heirs that he doesn't belong.

Nevertheless, he succeeds in picking up the traces of Cecil's spoor across the years, as those who loved him give themselves away.

Hollinghurst is delicately vague about just how sordid and speculative the Bryant biography ends up being. We know roughly what it says and we have learnt not quite to trust Paul, but find ourselves unable to judge its sensational rewrite of the Valance family tree.

All this might be read as a meditation on literary reputation, the vanity of fame, the fallibility of memory or some such venerable set theme.

But it is also, as clearly as any of Hollinghurst's novels, about the thrill of looking into a respectable world and finding others like oneself.

The riddle surrounding Paul is less whether he found the real Cecil than whether, once the edifice had been hollowed out, there was anything left of value, on either side of the encounter.

Paul's personal quest becomes a career. Somewhere along the way he grows coarse, acquires a salable reputation for disreputability; other biographies follow.

Speaking rather unattractively at a memorial service for his friend Peter, he inspires a listener to reflect that "the lyric of grief was often attended, or followed soon after, by a more prosaic little compulsion, the unseemly grasp of the chance to tell the truth".

At its best, Hollinghurst's own prosaic compulsion seems quite compatible with lyricism and a note of grief is clearly audible as the novel reaches its conclusion.

The reader is left to guess what is being mourned.

Ed Lake is the former deputy editor of The Review.