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

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?