The Strangers Child – Alan Hollinghurst

I have been sitting on this review for months, well ok not literally sitting on it but certainly debating if I should put it up. I then thought, as I am out of the country, why not? You see my relationship with Alan Hollinghurst’s latest novel was one of excitement (as I got a bound copy before the advances came in), self hype of my own making, the hype upon release and then the joy of the first hundred pages, before sadly it all began to fall apart. Plus, the books sold a shed load now and I am well aware me being a little grumpy review wise about it won’t do it any harm, and its not really a normal Savidge Reads review, rather a bit of a disappointed grumble. 

Picador, hardback, 2011, fiction, 576 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Before I go into what I hope will be a fair critique of ‘The Strangers Child’ I should really discuss the premise of it. The novel is really a tale of people of years and years, the novel itself is told in five sections each relating to a different decade. The two main characters, well I thought they were the main force of the story though others may disagree, Cecil Valance and Daphne Sawle meet, along with Daphne’s brother George who is equally smitten with Cecil (this made me think of ‘Brideshead Revisited’ though apparently that’s not something you should say to Mr Hollinghurst, oops, but it does give the book a slight feel of ‘oh haven’t I been here before?’) and really we follow their lives from their first meeting and join them at various points in time as the book progresses.

As much as I am being vague to not give any spoilers away, I was also slightly at a loss as to why we meet these characters when we do, and why they tend to wander off. Yes, that’s real life… well possibly real life if you are very rich and can spend life being unlikeable yet fabulous.  These points in time, to me, didn’t seem pivotal, and I couldn’t get a hold on them. I didn’t mind the fact they were all rather unlikeable but as the novel progressed I just kept thinking ‘where is this going, and do I care?’ Some will say the rather random way in which the book is written is one of the cleverest points of the novel, really? I don’t expect my books linear at all, yet I sometimes wonder if ‘clever’ (which is the word I have seen in many reviews) is a good way of describing ‘we don’t get it and so it must be the authors intention to be a little unconventional, it’s the art of the book… how clever’. Hmmmm.

I can say the writing is utterly stunning, yet ‘stunning’, ‘beautiful’, ‘elegant’, ‘effortless’ (as the reviews keep on saying) prose can only go a certain way and I honestly feel in the middle of the book it became all about the prose and it simply didn’t stop. The beautiful prose started to drag and the effect of it started to sag and I thought ‘I’m not going to finish this’. Yet I did and as the last third starts the book indeed picks up again. The random plot threads make a little more sense, then they don’t and tantalise and then they sort of do.The characters stay being dislikeable yet readable and I liked the way it ended. Yes the way it ended, not the fact it ended.

This of course has left me very torn. There is no doubt that ‘The Strangers Child’ contains some utterly gorgeous prose, no question of that at all. I just wish there had been a much tighter edit on the book as with about 200 pages taken out of it, or several thousand of those wonderfully worded words, this book would have become a possible favourite of mine, I do love an epic after all. Instead I became rather bored, if somewhat beautifully.


Filed under Alan Hollinghurst, Man Booker, Picador Books, Review

12 responses to “The Strangers Child – Alan Hollinghurst

  1. “Instead I became rather bored, if somewhat beautifully.”

    What a superb finishing line. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you expressed. I really can’t understand the “horror” that this was left off of the shortlist. It’s a rather tiresome book, despite the beauty of the prose.

    • Haha glad that I managed to sum this up so well for you. I didn’t love this book, yet weirdly when I saw him talking the other week he was really interesting and I was engaged, I wish that had been more reflective in the book.

  2. I thought that was a great review and yes, a great final line. 🙂 And I think I came away with a pretty good grasp of what the book has to offer. Although there will always be those on both sides of the fence!

    • Oh completely, there is no question that some people feel very different, there are lots of people who have utterly loved this book, and that is great. It just wasnt my cup of tea.

  3. I enjoyed The Stranger’s Child. I liked the jumps in time, I liked seeing what had happened to the characters in the intervening years. I haven’t read anything else by Alan Hollinghurst but it’s certainly made me want to search out other books by him.

  4. I still have this to read..maybe it should be my daily commute read rather than all-engrossing ‘home’ read.

  5. wordandpiece

    This is exactly how I felt about this book! I finished it because it was beautifully written and the earlier passages kept me hooked waiting for more of the same. Finished it feeling slightly disappointed.

  6. I also found it both beautiful, whilst frustratingly lacking in depth – it left me with so many questions, but I guess that was the point…?

    I disagree on the weight issue – I read my copy on a Kindle (I’m new to this blog – is that heresy to admit?)

  7. Richard B (Washington, DC)

    I just got around to reading this. I’ve read all of Hollinghurst’s fiction and have never been disappointed … until now. That said, I did enjoy the book but found it overwritten, underwritten, and as I said disappointing.
    There was the potential for a book out of each time period and I can’t make up my mind if it was clever to leave holes as to how they related to each other or lazy, but to adequately link the characters and stories would have taken perhaps another book’s length.
    Masochist that I am I am now reading the Forsyte Saga. Do you see a pattern here?
    All in all a good read though, however I fast paced it through the last section hoping for some resolution which did not come. Still not sure though.

  8. I’ve just discovered your wonderful blog today, courtesy of the lovely Marina Sofia, and am flicking about. I loved The Line Of Beauty, found it v funny in places, particularly the father, and I have this one but haven’t got round to it yet…So many books, so little time. I’m sure you understand. I’m with you on the beautiful prose, but at the end of the day it is a novel and you want a story to be told. I love your reviewing style, btw. Very glad I found SavidgeReads.

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