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