The mail carrier recently delivered an Amazon package containing a gift from jamessal, a copy of The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Hollinghurst. I set it aside till I had finished my latest copyediting slog, as a reward, and now that I’ve started it I can immediately see why Jim called Hollinghurst “a world-class writer” and wanted to share the book with me. Here are the first two paragraphs (virtually the entire first page):
She’d been lying in the hammock reading poetry for over an hour. It wasn’t easy: she was thinking all the while about George coming back with Cecil, and she kept sliding down, in small half-willing surrenders, till she was in a heap, with the book held tiringly above her face. Now the light was going, and the words began to hide among themselves on the page. She wanted to get a look at Cecil, to drink him in for a minute before he saw her, and was introduced, and asked her what she was reading. But he must have missed his train, or at least his connection: she saw him pacing the long platform at Harrow and Wealdstone, and rather regretting he’d come. Five minutes later, as the sunset sky turned pink above the rockery, it began to seem possible that something worse had happened. With sudden grave excitement she pictured the arrival of a telegram, and the news being passed round; imagined weeping pretty wildly; then saw herself describing the occasion to someone, many years later, though still without quite deciding what the news had been.
In the sitting-room the lamps were being lit, and through the open window she could hear her mother talking to Mrs. Kalbeck, who had come to tea, and who tended to stay, having no one to get back for. The glow across the path made the garden suddenly lonelier. Daphne slipped out of the hammock, put on her shoes, and forgot about her books. She started towards the house, but something in the time of day held her, with its hint of a mystery she had so far overlooked: it drew her down the lawn, past the rockery, where the pond that reflected the trees in silhouette had grown as deep as the white sky. It was the long still moment when the hedges and borders turned dusky and vague, but anything she looked at closely, a rose, a begonia, a glossy laurel leaf, seemed to give itself back to the day with a secret throb of colour.
The first thing that struck me was that with a few name changes, this could be straight out of To the Lighthouse; the ambience, the focus on psychology, and the gorgeous writing are very Woolfian. To take those items in order: the poetry in the hammock and the apparently substantial estate, with a rockery (UK for “rock garden”), pond, hedges, and borders, indicate a well-off family like the Ramsays, and the telegram and the lamps being lit suggest the pre-WWII world; the train of thought (poetry… where’s George? what’s Cecil like? … they’re very late… maybe they had an accident! he’s dead! … news, weeping, telling someone about it years from now…) is acutely observed and brilliantly presented, and the sentences! the language! “Now the light was going, and the words began to hide among themselves on the page”: utterly simple and yet I’ve never seen that particular event (so familiar to those of us who read in all surroundings and conditions of light) described so well and memorably; “weeping pretty wildly” is pitch-perfect; and the whole last passage starting “She started towards the house…” is downright Nabokovian in its deployment of sounds and syntax to render a complex perception, with the final “seemed to give itself back to the day with a secret throb of colour” somehow calling back to “the words began to hide among themselves on the page.” I’m hooked, and very much looking forward to the rest of the book. (Those of you who have read it should feel free to make general remarks, but please, no spoilers—I haven’t the faintest idea what the book is about yet!)
Addendum. Having posted this, I have to add this sentence from the Hollinghurst novel: “He spoke German nicely, keeping an amused pedantic eye on the slowly approaching end of his sentences.”