Alan Hollinghurst's fifth novel, following his Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty, has been seven years in the making.
It opens just before the First World War, with E M Forster, rather than Henry James, as the key to its tone. Forster gave up writing fiction once he discovered the love that dared not speak its name; The Stranger's Child feels like the kind of novel that Forster might have written had he continued.
It begins in a comfortable Edwardian middle-class home, not unlike Windy Corner in A Room With a View. George Sawle, a Cambridge undergraduate, has brought his aristocratic friend and secret lover, Cecil Valance, to stay at Two Acres for the weekend. Unlike Forster's effete, pretentious Cecil Vyse, Holling-hurst's handsome Cecil is rampantly homosexual, and a poet whose most famous poem is, at the end of the weekend, entitled "Two Acres" and dedicated to George's sister Daphne. True, Cecil kisses Daphne, writes to her, and asks her to consider him as her fiancé shortly before his death in the First World War, but we know, as most of the Sawle and Valance families do not, that the poem was really addressed to George.
A complex comedy of class, politics, art and, above all, sexuality is set in motion over the ensuing 70 years. Four sections, set in 1926, 1967, 1980 and 2008 reveal what happens to Daphne – who marries Cecil's womanising "mad brute" brother Dudley – and other members of the Sawle and Valance families. The reader knows that Cecil's overbearing mother (nicknamed "the General") discovered her son's true nature and concealed his letters from the rest of the family.
Decades after Cecil and George made love in the gardens of Two Acres, Peter and Paul, who appear in the Sixties, embrace in the gardens of Cecil's ancestral home, Corley Court. Eventually, Paul will interview three survivors of that weekend in 1913 – Daphne, George and the servant boy Jonah – in order to research his biography of Cecil, who by 2008 has become a minor part of the English canon, à la Rupert Brooke. What one generation leaves behind for posterity, both artistically and genetically, becomes part of an impeccable, ironic, profoundly enjoyable plot structure, with "secrets nested inside each other".
The Stranger's Child could be usefully compared with A S Byatt's Possession in its account of the way Cecil is mythologised by memory, misunderstandings and lies: "A soldier ... a scholar ... a poet ... and a gentleman!", quotes one character sarcastically from his obituary in The Times. "Two Acres" is quoted in a speech by Winston Churchill, and perceived as being quintessentially English pastoral poetry – but, as with much homosexual art of the past, its inspiration is purely private, and unpublishable. Hollinghurst, a masterly stylist, is deliciously clever at parodying the Edwardian sentiment which Rupert Brooke briefly soared above. But his true preoccupation is one of what is unsaid and acknowledged only once the curse of prejudice is lifted.
If Two Acres inspires Cecil Valance's best poem, it is Corley Court, the "violently Victorian" ancestral home, which is at the heart of the novel. Like Evelyn Waugh's Brides-head, Kazuo Ishiguro's Darlington Hall and Sarah Waters's Hundreds Hall, the house is both the setting and the magnifying glass under which the characters' obsessions and frailties are to be exposed. The house's ornate interiors are much remarked upon, and an inaccurate, posthumously carved marble statue of Cecil takes on a ludicrous air. Only after it has been transformed into a boys' prep-school, when we see Corley Court through the eyes of Peter, do we realise it's probably closer to the now admired St Pancras railway station. Architecture, like poetry, moves in and out of fashion, but not everyone shares the the view of Daphne's second husband, the artist Revel Ralph, that "we feel there's room for more than one kind of beauty". Eventually, both houses go under the wrecker's ball.
The marriages, births and deaths are mostly off-stage, the sex toned down, and the narrative largely carried by dialogue, much of it so freighted with irony as to be a delight in itself. Musical performances reveal character (another Forsterian hallmark), but the novel's chief pleasure is itself akin to music: characters and details concerning life and love move in and out of focus to reveal unexpected discords and harmonies. The drawback is that, largely deprived of Hollinghurst's gorgeous descriptive voice, Daphne is not as well-drawn as The Line of Beauty's Catherine Fedden, and Cecil is a figure of indifference compared with The Line of Beauty's agonised Nick Guest. Aesthetically, The Stranger's Child is probably the best novel this year so far, but it fails to move Hollinghurst on to the next level. A writer of this order of intelligence, perceptiveness, skill and sensibility could and should become not just an outstanding contemporary writer, but a great one.
To order any of these books at a reduced price, including free UK p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 0843 0600 030 or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk