The Impermanence of Memory: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child

October 21, 2011 | 5 books mentioned 5 6 min read

I’ve always had a soft spot for the sweeping multi-generational family saga. I’m continually amazed that a good writer can will us to abandon one protagonist for another, the father for the son; we hesitate, but a hundred pages later, we’ve forgotten the earlier generations as quickly as history does itself. But there’s something a little cruel in this sort of book: it’s not history — it’s a novel, and its ironic circumstances are wholly constructed. The innocent early days, the invariable fall, the important details that get distorted and misplaced over time: the author is setting us up, and the book would be innocuous — even pointless — if we weren’t eventually let down. These books are inherently about loss: the characters we meet at the beginning will die, or if they don’t, something else will be lost to the passage of time.

coverAlan Hollinghurst’s new novel, The Stranger’s Child, is one of those sweeping multi-generational family sagas, and, of course, Hollinghurst is one of those writers who can do most things remarkably well. It’s as beautifully written as his previous books, but it feels like a departure: the last four have been relatively stationary affairs in comparison, centering around young, gay Englishmen with a lot of time on their hands, and the narratives are largely expository and internal. I’ve read three out of four — the friend who eagerly pressed Hollinghurst on me years ago agreed with the critics and told me to skip The Spell — and of them, the 2004 Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty had been my (well, everyone’s) hands-down favorite.

coverBut The Stranger’s Child seems as if it’s been written for me — or, at least, someone with my proclivities — with its somewhat traditional subject and straightforward narrative, a plot that moves on dialogue rather than description, and a pervasive Englishness, reserved and class-bound, that encompasses whole swaths of 20-century British literature. Parts of it, to my delight, feel very much like Brideshead Revisited fanfiction — in the best possible way, of course. (Who didn’t want more of “those languid days at Brideshead,” to actually see what Charles and Sebastian were surely getting up to that summer?)

covercoverThe book’s been repeatedly compared to the work of Evelyn Waugh, E. M. Forster, and, as with Hollinghurst’s previous novels, Henry James, as well as that of contemporaries like Ian McEwan (for Atonement, which, on the surface, has many similarities) and Kazuo Ishiguro (for The Remains of the Day). But Hollinghurst brings a precise elegance to the genre, building upon the novels that came before it. In an essay on Atonement written a decade ago, Geoff Dyer said that, “It is less about a novelist harking nostalgically back to the consoling certainties of the past than it is about creatively extending and hauling a defining part of the British literary tradition up and into the twenty-first century.” Hollinghurst, rarely transgressive, occasionally labeled as “fusty,” but an unfailingly extraordinary novelist, is extending and hauling Brideshead into the present day. (Dyer had high praise for The Stranger’s Child and its author: in a review, he wrote that “Hollinghurst, the gay novelist, might also be the best straight novelist that Britain has to offer.”)

The novel begins in the summer of 1913 at Two Acres, the home of the Sawle family in outer London. The initial Brideshead parallels are reversed: the family is middle class and their houseguest, Cecil Valance, is an aristocrat. He’s a mediocre but deeply charming poet, and during the visit he puts aggressive but rather tame moves on the impressionable Daphne, all the while having it off properly in the woods with her brother, George. Cecil is killed in World War I, as are other characters from the idyllic opening passages, and most of them fade into obscurity by the second part, set a decade later. But Cecil is remembered, even revered: celebrated as a minor war poet, he’s quoted by Winston Churchill in the newspaper and viewed, as with so much of the late-Edwardian canon, as prophetic.

The remaining three sections make similarly brash leaps forward in time: the mid-1960s, then the early ‘80s, and finally, briefly, in the present day. Nearly a century after the initial action, all of our old friends have died. It’s inevitable, but it leaves you feeling a little cheated. With each transition you struggle with momentary disorientation, taking stock of who’s still alive and the family entanglements that have grown more complicated in the intervening decades. In a book where sexuality is surprisingly fluid and loyalties often waver, deciphering the two families’ domestic affairs is a tall order, and at times, a frustrating one. The more interesting changes are subtler: with the passage of time, characters’ histories are rewritten. Those who survive — and a surprising number of early characters make it well into old age — come to be defined by the decades through which they’ve lived. But those who died remain crystallized in memories, tinted and warped with nostalgia or bitterness. Misunderstandings and assumptions in 1913 become reminisces in the ‘20s, memories in the ‘60s, vague recollections in the ‘80s, and all but completely forgotten in the present day.

At the heart of these rewritten histories is literature: this is, after all, a book about a poet, and eventually, a book about books. The fourth and, at times, most tedious section, follows a biographer’s somewhat incompetent attempts to unravel Cecil Valance’s short life. Valance’s brother, Dudley, who winds up marrying Daphne, is a writer as well, but by the ‘80s, his work has faded from public consciousness. Daphne writes a book that is dismissed for its factual inaccuracies; she thinks back later about how her memories, cloudy with years of heavy drinking, are just as inaccurate: “The fact was that all the interesting and decisive things in her adult life had happened when she was more or less tight: she had little recall of anything that occurred after about 6:45, and the blur of the evenings, for the past sixty years and more, had leaked into the days as well.” The elderly characters, with their shaky recollections, leave you immensely frustrated: “I was there!” you want to shout. “Four hundred pages ago! Don’t you remember?” And when Daphne continues on, worrying over lost memories, the resulting passage is heartbreaking:

She felt something similar, but worse in a way, about hundreds and hundreds of books she’d read, novels, biographies, occasional books about music and art — she could remember nothing about them at all, so that it seemed rather pointless even to say that she had read them; such claims were a thing people set great store by but she hardly supposed they recalled any more than she did. Sometimes a book persisted as a colored shadow at the edge of sight, as vague and unrecapturable as something seen in the rain from a passing vehicle: looked at directly it vanished altogether. Sometimes there were atmospheres, even the rudiments of a scene: a man in an office looking over Regent’s Park, rain in the streets outside — a little blurred etching of a situation she would never, could never, trace back to its source in a novel she had read some time, she thought, in the past thirty years.

A bleak epigraph marks the start of the book’s final section: “No one remembers you at all.” It’s from Mick Imlah’s poem “In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson” (the phrase “the stranger’s child” is from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.”). Imlah passed away two years ago, and Hollinghurst has dedicated this book to him. There’s something so grim about the idea that even books will be forgotten: memory is fickle, sometimes faulty, but shouldn’t something printed and bound hold more permanence than that? In the final scenes, we follow a relative stranger into an antiquarian bookshop, and there’s a moment of hope that the characters that were scribbling away dozens of chapters ago will be remembered. At one point very early on, a character says that Cecil’s poems “will be read for as long as there are readers with an ear for English music, and an eye for English things.” A century later, this seems doubtful: he is known, but he is barely remembered. The First World War, which feels palpably less present with each step forward in time, is now firmly in the past.

A book of this scope writes its own history, and if you find that history compelling, you’re doomed to fall in love with it. This was the first novel in a long while that pulled me in wholeheartedly: I stayed in on the weekend, and didn’t grumble about getting stuck on the train one night, just to finish it faster. I’ve pressed it on people at work, on friends at parties, and on strangers in coffee shops. The majority of them have never heard of it, or even of Hollinghurst himself. When I finished it, I went to look it up on Wikipedia, to read about its influences (cross-referenced, I assumed, with all the historical cameos, Rupert Brooke and Lytton Strachey and the like). Instead I found a skeletal plot summary and a brief paragraph on the reviews (“generally received positively”). I was indignant. Why wasn’t it tagged as an “instant classic”?

We live in a time when things struggle to stick: competing influences, recommendations, and links, bombarding us and casting aside one new thing for the next. But perhaps one of the best lessons to be learned from The Stranger’s Child is that things have never stuck particularly well. People and their words can tilt the world on its axis, however briefly, but the world will always tilt again. Imagining not remembering a thing about The Stranger’s Child decades from now, of it falling out of print, of Hollinghurst fading into obscurity, is hard for me to comprehend. But Hollinghurst’s characters carried some version of Cecil Valance with them through the stretch of their long lives. It seems difficult to imagine that we wouldn’t take all of these characters with us through our lives in turn.

is a staff writer for The Millions and writes a regular column about fan culture for the New Statesman. She recently completed an MA in the digital humanities at University College London. She's gotten much better at Twitter in the past year, but she still spends most of her time (/life) on Tumblr. She lives in Brooklyn.


  1. @Katie

    [Check out Dyer’s non-fiction collection OTHERWISE KNOWN AS THE HUMAN CONDITION, which includes the essay and other great pieces. The Dyer quote was actually pulled form a Guardian review.]


    Who’s afraid of influence?

    In his latest book Atonement Ian McEwan brings the British novel into the 21st century, says Geoff Dyer

    The twists and turns of Ian McEwan’s fiction are built on a knack for sustained illusion. When he writes “a glass of beer” we do not just see it; we are willing to drink from it vicariously. The ballooning accident (imaginatively derived from footage of an actual incident) that opens Enduring Love is a spectacular example, but the ability to make the invented seem real animates every page of his work.

    The novels’ psychological acuity derives, always, from their fidelity to a precisely delineated reality. Needless to say, the more disturbing or skewed that reality (in the early stories and novels, most obviously), the more finely McEwan attunes his readers to it. Moral ambiguity and doubt are thereby enhanced – rather than resolved – by clarity of presentation. This is why the themes of the novels (with the exception of the enjoyably forgettable Amsterdam ) linger and resonate beyond the impeccable neatness of their arrangement. McEwan is, in other words, a thoroughly traditional original.

    Atonement does not feel, at first, like a book by McEwan. The opening is almost perversely ungripping. Instead of the expected sharpness of focus, the first 70 or so pages are a lengthy summary of shifting impressions. One longs for a cinematic clarity and concentration of dialogue and action, but such interludes dissolve before our – and the participants’ – eyes.

    Unlike Martin Amis, say, or Salman Rushdie, McEwan is an invisible rather than a flamboyant stylist. Even so, the pallid qualifiers and disposable adverbs (a “gently rocking” sheet of water, the “coyly drooping” head of a nettle) come as a surprise. The language used to distil the scene – a gathering of the Tallis family at their country house on a sweltering day in 1935 – serves also as a wash that partially obscures it.

    Various characters come and go but the novel, at this point, seems populated mainly by its literary influences. Chief among these is Virginia Woolf. The technique is not stream of consciousness so much as “a slow drift of association”, “the hovering stillness of nothing much seeming to happen”. The book later contains a critique of its own early pages – or at least of the draft from which they derive – in the guise of a letter from Cyril Connolly, editor of Horizon , who advises that “such writing can become precious when there is no sense of forward movement”. The requisite propulsion is provided by the unexpected intrusion, as it were, of two other novelists from the interwar years.

    Cecilia, the eldest daughter of the family in whose house we are imaginatively lodged, was at Cambridge with Robbie, the son of the Tallises’ cleaning lady, whose education was funded by Cecilia’s father. They become aware, on this sultry day, of some kind of current – animosity? irreconcilable attraction? – passing between them. Robbie tries to articulate this in a letter, at the bottom of which he scribbles the naked truth: “In my dreams I kiss your cunt.” He discards that draft and intends to send another, blander one but, in keeping with Freud’s analysis of such slips, accidentally sends the shocking letter to Cecilia via her adolescent sister, Briony, who opens and reads it.

    The consequences of the go-between blundering in like this are liberating and incriminating in unequal measure. What Lawrence called the “dirty little secret” of sex besmirches the Tallises’ world, or – as Lawrence insisted – reveals how besmirched that world really is. It is as if Mellors from Lady Chatterley’s Lover has gatecrashed the exquisitely rendered world of Mrs Dalloway . Or as if the contents of McEwan’s stories had been explicitly daubed on the walls of Brideshead.

    Another crisis soon follows, this one imported from EM Forster’s India. Cecilia’s young cousin, Lola, is sexually assaulted in the grounds of the house. Lola does not know by whom, but Briony – an aspiring writer – compounds her earlier transgression by convincing her and everyone else (except Cecilia) that Robbie is the culprit. Unlike the incident in the Marabar caves, this one does not end in a retraction and Robbie, the proletarian interloper, is convicted.

    In the second section of the novel, the pastel haze of the first part gives way to an acrid, graphic account of Robbie’s later experiences in the British rout at Dunkirk. McEwan is here playing more obviously to his strengths. The highly decorated novelist deploys his research in an effective if familiar pattern of narrative manoeuvres. Refracted through Robbie’s exhausted, wounded view of history in the making, the retreat unfolds in a series of vividly realised details and encounters. In the atrocious context of battle, Briony’s apparently motiveless crime is rendered almost insignificant. “But what was guilt these days? It was cheap. Everyone was guilty, and no one was.”

    In similar fashion, the partial democratisation of Britain that results from the social upheaval of war is prefigured by Cecilia’s turning her back on her family and allying herself with Robbie, the working-class graduate (whose smouldering sense of grievance and displacement would be vehemently embodied on the postwar stage by Jimmy Porter).

    Part three shifts back to London, where Briony is training as a nurse, struggling to cope with the influx of casualties from Dunkirk. McEwan’s command of visceral shock is here anchored in a historical setting thoroughly authenticated by his archival imagination. The elliptical style of the opening part has no place in these pages, as the graphic horrors of injury, mutilation and death pile up before Briony’s eyes. She loosens the bandage around a patient’s head and his brain threatens to slop out into her hands. Does this devotion to the victims of war wash her hands of her earlier guilt? Does her atonement depend on Robbie’s survival? Or can it be achieved through the eventual realisation of her literary ambitions – through a novel such as the one we are reading? Who can grant atonement to the novelist, whose God-like capacity to create and rework the world means that there is no higher authority to whom appeal can be made?

    It is a tribute to the scope, ambition and complexity of Atonement that it is difficult to give an adequate sense of what is going on in the novel without preempting – and thereby diminishing – the reader’s experience of it. Suffice to say, any initial hesitancy about style – any fear that, for once, McEwan may not be not in control of his material -all play their part in his larger purpose.

    On the one hand, McEwan seems to be retrospectively inserting his name into the pantheon of British novelists of the 1930s and 1940s. But he is also, of course, doing more than this, demonstrating and exploring what the mature Briony comes to see as a larger “transformation… being worked in human nature itself”. The novels of Woolf and Lawrence did not just record this transformation; they were instrumental in bringing it about. McEwan uses his novel to show how this subjective or interior transformation can now be seen to have interacted with the larger march of 20th- century history.

    While John Fowles was working on The French Lieutenant’s Woman, he reminded himself that this was not a book that one of the Victorian novelists forgot to write but, perhaps, one that they had failed to write. A similar impulse underwrites Atonement. It is less about a novelist harking nostalgically back to the consoling uncertainties of the past than it is about creatively extending and hauling a defining part of the British literary tradition up to and into the 21st century.

  2. I loved the piece, and I loved the G.D. piece on “Atonement.” One small
    question: is it only my fervid imagination that leads me to believe that
    the quote from “Atonement” is slightly off, and that it should be closer
    to “In my dreams I kiss your sweet, wet cunt”? I wouldn’t bet money, but
    that’s the way I remember it.

  3. Loved your review Elizabeth; the only trouble being that I didn’t agree with it. I found ‘The Stranger’s Child’ extremely hard work, and wouldn’t recommend it to others because I found it terribly plodding. I’m glad, nevertheless, that it took your mind off the appalling vagaries of Network Rail (or whatever the hell they’re called now).

    And I’m sorry Alan, but I only made it through to the end because I’d enjoyed your previous four novels sufficiently to want to get there.

    To be fair, however, I enjoyed each of those four novels considerably more on a second reading, so maybe in a few years time I’ll re-read ‘The Stranger’s Child’ and enjoy it a lot more, but I’m afraid I rather doubt it.

    There seemed to be no narrative drive, for me; just a series of not very interesting characters doing not very interesting things. Even George’s affair with Cecil, if that’s what it was, seemed rather half-cooked, and what could have been really quite interesting , Cecil’s dalliance with Jonah, the servant-boy, is only skated over. Similarly, the dynamics of Daphne’s second marriage, to Revel Ralph, are not investigated in any way. And it seems to take 500 pages for Daphne to realize that Cecil was only pretending to be interested in her. Forster did all this a whole lot better in ‘Maurice’, it seems to me, and I’m afraid that, after the last four novels, I found this one to be a bit of a let-down.

    As regards the others, I ‘d say that ‘The Swimming Pool Library’ was the most accomplished, and more than just the obvious ‘tour d’horizon’ of the London gay world, that it seemed to be on first reading,

    The sex scene, (and the build-up to it, with its wonderful cameos of gay saloon-bar bores in Antwerp), towards the end of ‘The Folding Star’, is one of the best in British fiction, and was so beautifully done that one quite happily forgave Hollinghurst for his irrelevant sub-plot about the Belgian painter Orst. Not so easy to forgive were the pages and pages about a frankly rather dreary adolescence in Tunbridge Wells. And even more worryingly, for me, the novel seems to encapsulate a central problem with Hollinghurst’s fiction. For example, whilst Edward Manners seems to fall quickly in love with Luc Altidore, his boy-hero, (and frankly who wouldn’t?) he just as quickly snuffs out his feelings in front of his pupil (as I admit we all probably would), so that it is as if the novel (or indeed, the affair) has been killed off before it has properly begun. And such a pity that Hollinghurst really does appear to kill Luc off, in the final pages of the novel; I mean, Luc’s 16, more than ready to grow away from his clingy mother (although simultaneously in need of a father-figure, given that his own has pissed off) and apparently quite well-versed in how to please sailors, by all accounts!

    And exactly the same thing happens with Nick Guest’s boyfriend, Toby, in ‘The Line of Beauty’. Obviously Nick is not in a position to bonk Toby on the floor of his parents’ Notting Hill drawing-room, but nor either does Nick feel able to verbalize his fondness for Toby in any way. Obviously an English problem, so Nick sidetracks his energies instead into an affair with a bicycle courier, who is in turn killed off himself at the end of the first half. However, I found that Guest’s affair with the rich-boy (in the second half of the book) seems to be entirely disjointed from this earlier relationship. So I think that ‘The Line of Beauty’ is a little over-rated, all things considered, although I imagine the prize money was nice. Fun in parts, and full of wonderful pen-portraits, like that of the idiotic Lady Partridge, for example. But as a portrait of the ‘Eighties in general, which so many critics hailed it as, I don’t think it was especially remarkable.

    ‘The Spell’, by contrast, which seemed a bit silly on first reading, turned out, on a second, to be a remarkably fine and cohesive piece of writing. So, Elizabeth, I’d ignore the critics and give it a try.

    I’m just sorry to have been horrid about the latest novel. Who knows, maybe the next one will be a killer?

  4. Excellent review, nails exactly how I felt about the book (including tedious fourth section).
    My summer was book-ended with a chance reading of Brideshead Revisited in May, a sale copy picked up for a euro, and then in late Aug a chance reading of ‘A Stranger’s Child’ on a weekend’s break . Bought it at the airport in a hurry and hadn’t read any detailed reviews in advance, just heard it was ‘good’ , so really had no clue about the parallels and similar themes to BR etc.
    Just imagine my absolute delight!
    Enough to make me believe in Providence.

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