Changing history

I thoroughly enjoyed Alan Hollinghurst's The stranger's child. In many ways it's a throwback to the big blockbuster family history novels of yesteryear, but it's also a very different read following the lives of gay men through the twentieth century.

The novel opens in 1913 when upper-crust poet, Cecil Valance, visits his lover. While staying at George's home Valance writes a poem that will become emblematic of its time, ostensibly for George's sister, Daphne. Valance is killed during the First World War, George marries (apparently happily, in spite of the oddity of his situation), and Daphne, apparently pining for Cecil, marries his brother.

Cut forward a few years, and the intermingled families meet up, most, both straight and gay, are trying and failing to come to terms with their sexuality, inevitably restricted by the mores of their time.

The novel leaps forward again to the Swinging Sixties, with Britain on the brink of legalising homosexuality. The lives of new lead characters Paul Bryant and Peter Rowe are contrasted with the restricted lives of the older generation. A further leap forward brings us to the 1980s, where Bryant is writing a biography of Valance, which promises to be the most explicit yet about his sexuality. The novel ends in modern times with a remembrance service for Peter Rowe, that can finally be truly open about his life.

The main theme of the novel is the evolution of gay culture in the UK through the twentieth century. But it's more than that, it's also a reflection of the changing face of society generally, as barriers between class also fall throughout the century. Although it's positive about the changes in openness towards sexuality throughout the century, it's also interesting in the way it portrays sexuality generally. The problems in having to hide ones sexuality are explored, but it's no picnic even if you're heterosexual, and this is clear in the narrative, with some of the most complicated relationships belonging to the straight characters. In fact what the novel suggests is that though society's attitudes towards sex can confuse any situation, it's to a great extent down to the individual how they deal with it.

It's not only sex that's complicated in The stranger's child, as it turns out that some of the characters have been less than honest about other aspects of their lives. So what ultimately do you have to be honest about in order to be true to yourself? It's a fascinating read, moving through the social history of the twentieth century, and thoroughly enjoyable.


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