The most successful aspect of The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Hollinghurst, is to show history as a palimpsest, an overlaying of different interpretations of the life and work of its ‘central’ character, the minor Georgian poet Cecil Valance.   Although the title refers immediately to various doubts about paternity through the narrative, the novel also paradoxically makes Cecil and his legacy the child of strangers.

Cecil is only alive for the first of the novel’s five sections, dying shortly after in the First World War, and yet the novel coheres around the response to him of successive generations – both of his family and of his interpreters – up to the present day.  Coheres, and yet flaunts its lacunae: the sections are not continuous, so with each new section, Hollinghurst plays with our desire to know how the story continued for the characters of the preceding section(s), delaying revelations and denying them, as well as showing how the remaining characters twist history to their own ends.   Despite his poised prose, and his subtle comedies of manners, this means that the novel as a whole takes time to deepen its interest beyond the well-done but somewhat predictable pastiche of earlier periods.

As with his previous work, Hollinghurst excels in the arc of the aesthetic betrayal: an investment in the appreciation and rendering of beauty which gives way to the self-aggrandizing nastiness of reality: only here, it is done in each section, and across the whole text, with an entire civilization in mind, rather than building towards the tragic education of an individual character such as Nick in The Line of Beauty.

With that in mind, Hollinghurst gives us amongst other things an impish potted history of twentieth century literary scholarship: from the hagiographic and selective portraits of friends and family, through the increasingly salacious and self-serving biography, to the career-building genetic and Queer Theoretical re-evaluations which earn their exponent Nigel Dupont ‘a suit that in itself conveyed the sheer superiority of a well-endowed chair at a Southern Californian university’.  The novel closes finally with the shift from scholarship as such to thoroughgoing commodification in the form of Rob, a book trader for whom the object of desire is the valuable rare ‘find’ of one of Cecil’s manuscripts.  History is finally absorbed into and simultaneously occluded by the marketplace.