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A multi-layered novel which deliberately leaves much to a readers imagination

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Alan Hollinghurst
Alan Hollinghurst's novel "The Stranger's Child" follows the ripples of a poet's career through almost a century. He says he wanted to examine how literary careers can hit incredible peaks and then vanish. He also wanted to consider how the private lives of people from the past can now be laid open to public scrutiny.
MPR image/Euan Kerr

Howls of protest were heard in Britain recently when judges for the prestigious Mann Booker prize omitted Alan Hollinghurst's novel "The Stranger's Child" from their short list. The book caused one newspaper critic to say Hollinghurst had a "perhaps unassailable claim to be the best English novelist working today." 

"The Stranger's Child" is a carefully constructed story, with so many strata, it has confounded many attempts to describe it.

Hollinghurst boils it down to this:

"I think it's very much a book about time and memory," he said. "I think it's not a book I would have written 10 years ago, but as I get older I am more and more by the fallibility of my own memory." 

"The Stranger's Child" is split into five sections. The first is set in 1913 and recounts the visit of Cecil Valance to a Cambridge friend's country home. He's gaining fame as an up and coming poet.

"Not a particularly good poet," Hollinghurst said. "But he's a sort of aristocratic figure of tremendous self confidence and considerable glamour and interestingly bisexual, so that there are various people of different kinds and different persuasions who all feel that they really hold the secret to this young man's heart and subsequently to his life."

And this becomes even more important when a sniper's bullet kills Valance during World War I, and he enters immortality as one of Britain's celebrated War Poets. In the following segments, set in the 1920s 1950s, 1980s and in 2008, the views of Cecil's life change. 

But Hollinghurst does not make the transitions easy for the reader, and deliberately so.

"Part of the effect of the book, I hope, is to immerse the reader in the lives of the characters in each of the particular periods," he said, "and then to throw them without preparation into the next section of the book where they will struggle for a minute or two to kind of get their bearings." 

"I think it's very much a book about time and memory."

The book is partly about the way some writers once hugely popular are now forgotten. Hollinghurst said.

"And partly about the changing nature of biography perhaps," he said. "What can actually be said about the private life of people in the past, and particularly the gay subject, which in the first part of the book is completely unmentionable."

Which brings us back to memory. Hollinghurst's characters keep looking back at what happened, but they don't know many things for certain. He also constructed the book with large gaps of time, which readers may fill in for themselves almost subconsciously. Much is left to the imagination. Which the author says is the point.

"It's a very much a book about uncertainties, I think," Hollinghurst said. "In my earlier books I left very little doubt as to what had gone on between the characters.

"In this book, with all its gaps and mysteries, I hope that the reader too would be as unsure as to just what had gone on between two characters as some of the other characters in the book are. And decades later when they are trying to reconstruct just what might have happened between Cecil and Daphne, or Cecil and George, nobody knows for sure."

Hollinghurst says as in life, "The Stranger's Child" contains things that are never fully resolved or understood. He realizes doing this is a risk, but he believes readers will go along with it. 

British readers were ready to go along, to the point where some called him a favorite for this year's Booker Prize. Hollinghurst's most previous novel "The Line of Beauty" won the Booker in 2004. He said it brought him a whole new audience.

"I don't think I would ever buy a book because it won the Booker prize, but a lot of people do," he said.

When "The Stranger's Child" didn't make the short list many people cried foul, but Hollinghurst shrugged it off. His book clearly wasn't what this year's particular group of judges wanted, he said.

"I really do remain quite detatched from the whole thing," he said. "And I've seen people go slightly crazy with 'Bookermania' and the gloom, the sense of worthlessness that can come from not getting shortlisted or whatever," he said. "But it's all rather silly. I think one has to remain fairly aloof from it all."

However, there's a certain amount of publicity from not making the shortlist, which for a novel about literary legacy, kind of fits.