Picador, £20, 565pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Stranger's Child, By Alan Hollinghurst

The pressure of following up a Man Booker Prize-winning novel (The Line of Beauty in 2004) might be one to which few authors would object. Yet a pressure it is and, given Alan Hollinghurst's published output to date (four books across two decades), the surprise about The Stranger's Child must be just how expansive and extensive it is, coming just seven years on. This is not only a question of length, though the new novel comfortably outruns its predecessors. Last acclaimed for nailing the social and political zeitgeist of Britain – or, more accurately, England – in the 1980s, Hollinghurst has reacted with a confidence that might seem to border on recklessness. For while The Stranger's Child tells a very particular story – of the life and legacy of a war-slain Georgian poet – it simultaneously maps the thousands of changes to befall England, Englishness and English subjects across the past hundred years.

Sceptics may miss the point if they focus on what is not here. The author's focus remains partial, in the sense that the poor, working- and lower middle-classes are largely accorded walk-on parts. Like Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited – a novel with whose plot it repeatedly engages and somewhat pastiches – The Stranger's Child concerns itself overwhelmingly with the glamour of noble entitlement, as well as with the sentimental appeal of the aristocracy through the post-war curtailment of its influence in mores and values.

The century is spanned in five sections, with individual lives and storylines playfully abandoned and resumed. There is much unwritten space between each, and often key aspects of a situation, or consequences from it, are only clarified some hundreds of pages or decades later. Given this selectivity, Hollinghurst's focus on the poet Cecil Valance's literary reputation following his death in combat is inspired. His reputation is shown to have no innate, dependable currency, just as characters' recollections and inherited impressions of one another shift and ebb.

Early publicity has made much of the fact that a woman – Daphne, near lover of Cecil – sits at the heart of The Stranger's Child. But this is largely because of a gesture. Cecil writes his most remembered poem, "Two Acres", for her, apparently since he could not do so readily for her brother George, with whom he has had a passionate affair.

In two senses, the emphasis on the prominence of women here might be thought misleading, however. First, the determining and dominant relations overall – both erotic and platonic – remain overwhelmingly those between men, notwithstanding Daphne's three marriages.

Yet readers should recall that a diverse set of women played strong roles in The Line of Beauty, which is very much misunderstood if confused with the more straitened male worlds of The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), The Folding Star (1994) or The Spell (1998). In Nick Guest, Hollinghurst realised a brilliant synthesis of "mainstream" and subcultural existences – something utterly familiar to gay men, especially in the Thatcher period. Necessarily, sexual self-awareness and articulation throughout The Stranger's Child varies to a still greater degree than in previous books. However, the stand-off in The Swimming-Pool Library between two generations of gay men foreshadowed this book's delight in shifting nomenclature ("aesthetes" as a euphemism, for instance), social expectations (a civil partnership intrudes latterly) and register (as when one senior character objects to "smut").

Hollinghurst's debut also made great use of "Roops", a young boy. The Stranger's Child positively teems with droll, well-observed accounts of both childhood and adolescence. Hollinghurst's narration is consistently in the third person, and yet focuses resolutely on individual characters' perceptions – as when the child Wilfrid dares to enter his father's study, a room, we are told, "of unrememberable size". It takes a moment to recognise that Hollinghurst has chosen to record the boy's coinage here deliberately. The author derives much comic satisfaction from likewise entering the apparently rather vacant head of Paul, a dim-witted, opportunistic biographer. Here, for instance, is Paul's impression of a recital: "The noise of classical music, sameish and rhetorical, full of feelings people surely never had." A deafness, or rather blindness, to human feeling will be this biographer's Achilles' heel.

Rooms, corridors, facades and perspectives litter The Stranger's Child. Hollinghurst has noted his interest in architecture, and again proves masterful in his depiction of the fates, principally, of two properties: "Two Acres" itself, in which George and Daphne grow up, alongside brother Hubert, a less recalled victim of the Great War than Cecil; and Corley Court, seat of the Valances and, to the man who inherits it, Cecil's brother and Daphne's husband Dudley, a despised instance of Victorian Gothic folly.

These properties perpetually act and interact dynamically with individual lives, as the happenstance of room layouts, for instance, threatens to expose an adulterous clinch, or exposes poor Wilfrid to a newly deceased (but long senescent) German house guest. Few novels since EM Forster's Howards End have accorded so much significance to bricks and mortar – again, with the exception of Brideshead Revisited. Still fewer have been bold enough to convey, as Hollinghurst does, just how completely the English experience their own property, and others', as cementing much more than their origins or contingencies. Homes can, and do, dictate outcomes and even destinies.

Cecil comes to rest in the chapel at Corley, his memorial surviving the house's transformation into a school. This is rather like the fate of "The Coopers", the house in which Hollinghurst's revered Ronald Firbank, a putative contemporary of the Valances, grew up. Fans of Hollinghurst will delight in the many such private jokes.

The tomb – an ostentatious work, sculpted by a non-acquaintance from photographs – fares less well in terms of repute. Yet when George lets slip that the artist has given Cecil hands that are too small, the comment reveals less about aesthetic judgments and more about the occluded truth of George and Cecil's "friendship".

Throughout The Stranger's Child we are given the thrilling impenetrability and imprecision of lives as they are truly experienced. Nothing falls tidily or neatly into fictional resolution. In Hollinghurst, however, uncertainty is not so much a virtue as an inevitability of the human condition – as when Hubert's singleness is described as "perhaps a warning as much as an invitation" to women. It is mankind, in truth, which declines to be interpretable. A dog, by contrast, especially one called Rubbish, may be succinctly caught, as in "the gamy heat of its breath".

Impossible as it is to circumnavigate its myriad achievements in a brief review, The Stranger's Child is stunningly easy to commend. It is a rare thing to read a novel buoyed up by the certainty that it will stand among the year's best, but rarer still to become confident of its value in decades to come (notwithstanding the cautionary example of Cecil's "pretty phrases", which Hollinghurst – first published as a poet – evidently enjoyed concocting). I would compare the novel to Middlemarch, for its precision, pathos (a less expected quality, perhaps) and perfect phrasing, were Eliot not so underappreciated as a comic writer today.

But let us set comparisons aside. The Stranger's Child is a remarkable, unmissable achievement, written with the calm authority of an author who could turn his literary gifts to just about anything. As for the mercurial title, readers will find much, but characteristically not all, revealed by the closing pages. One leaves the novel with a sense of the truly extraordinary.

Richard Canning's edition of Ronald Firbank's 'Vainglory' will be published by Penguin Classics later this year

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent