Sunday, 14 August 2011

The Stranger's Child - a different type of great

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (Picdor: 2011). An epic of a book, starting with a weekend gathering at a country house in the early 1900s, and following the reverberations of that weekend through the lives of those in attendance (both long and short). Jumping decades between chapters, and told from the perspective of a variety of characters, the book chronicles the changing attitudes of society, and how those changes shed differing lights on the lives people have lived.
Read enough books, and you start to get familiar with a few of the tools of the writer. The cliff hanger is probably one of the most used. The dramatic twist is another. A sudden change of pace. The introduction of a mysterious new character. You name the tool, most books have at least one or two of them in which you can spot the finger prints of the writer from a mile away.
For the most part, when they’re used well and the right groundwork precedes them, the tools work. They do their job of hooking you into the book and raising your heartbeat a little. But the basic weakness of all these tools is that they almost always remind you that you’re reading fiction. They remind you that some guy or some gal has sat down at a desk and thought “how can I make this bit of the book a bit more exciting?” They remind you that, behind this story, there’s a writer and an imagination and a pretence. I read a short guide on how to write by Elmore Leonard once, and his big point was that the ultimate aim of any writer is to make the reader forget that you exist.
By now, I bet you’re starting to wonder about the book this week. So I’ll get to it.
The Stranger’s Child is so absent of obvious writers’ tools that I really did forget that Alan Hollinghurst existed at times. It unfolds with huge credibility; it just trips along with the feel of a genuine tale. There’s a distinct lack of fireworks, no lazy screams of manufactured excitement. It’s just all laid out there on the pages, a (not so brief) history of a small collection of people.
In fact, some of the most dramatic events in the lives of the central characters are skipped over entirely. The story is left at one point and picked up ten, twenty or thirty years later, with the intervening period spanning wars, deaths, births and marriages, but none of this drama is exploited for added drama. Instead, they’re sacrificed in favour of focussing on more subtle but arguably more significant events.
This is a long book. A fairly pedestrian story. But one that I read with enthusiasm, committed to it not because of the car chase excitement, but because of its inherent plausibility, the believability of the characters, and the affinity I felt with them because of it. Hollinghurst has written a book that has a great deal of beauty; a beauty that is likely to endure because of its understated qualities.
Now, I’m nervous about the scoring here. Not a lot actually happens in this book. And it’s 500 pages worth of not a lot happening. To an extent, it asks you to give it a chance, to settle into the world it creates and appreciate it in its own right rather than for the twists and turns of a high adrenaline plot. Adrenaline is simply not here.
It’s not so much a Berocca of a book, more a soothing cup of tea – less exciting, but no less enjoyable.  
My worry with the GBR score is that the book comes with a heavy condition. Read it a couple of pages at a time, snatched here and there in amongst your otherwise busy (and, no doubt, glamorous) lives, and you’ll probably get bored with it. But give it the time and space that it needs, and I’m convinced that you’ll love this like I did.
So I’m going to trust you here.
It’s a different kind of 9GBR than previous ones. It’s achieved in a very different way. Pick this up if you have a bit of time to spend on it. If not, go for The Great Gatsby, I, Lucifer, or (of course) The World of Jeeves.
Another high score. Who knew a 500 page book in which not a lot actually happens could earn a 9GBR, huh? I’m going to have to try and read something bad next, or you’re start thinking I’m a pushover. Which I’m not. At least I don’t think so.
Next week, a surprising book about summer holidays. See you in seven days.

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