The book of the summer

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Monday 4th July 2011

The audience listened with rapt attention as Alan Hollinghurst read an extract from his wonderful new novel, The Stranger’s Child.

Sitting in the wood-panelled Assembly Room at Oxford Town Hall, we all hung on his every gravelly-voiced word. Everyone, from the Waterstone’s chap charged with interviewing him (who’d read the book twice) to the two students sitting next to me, knew that we were hearing something special.

The Stranger’s Child, a vast tome stretching to nearly 600 pages, follows the lives of two families from the eve of the First World War, when aristocratic young poet Cecil Valance visits his Cambridge friend George Sawle, to the end of the 20th century. It was only published last week but it’s already been dubbed “the book of the year.” Every book reviewer worth their salt has put it on their summer reads recommendations, me included.

Hollinghurst, who won the Man Booker prize seven years ago for The Line of Beauty, told us that he began working on A Stranger’s Child in the summer of 2006 and it took him four and a half years to complete. He said he likes to get a “pretty clear architecture” of a book before he begins writing and never shows anyone a word till he’s finished. “I’ve never been a great one for research,” he added, although he spent a freezing cold afternoon stomping around Stanmore to get a feel for Two Acres, the country house that features in the book.

When Hollinghurst began his career as a novelist he had a day job at the TLS and wrote The Swimming Pool Library in the evenings. “There was a joy in writing it that I don’t always feel now,” he said. “I felt that I had a very good idea and that kept me going during the two and a half years of writing. My old friend Andrew Motion was an editor at Chatto & Windus so I showed it to him when I’d finished. He rang the next morning and said he wanted to publish it.”

Asked where his elegant writing style came from he admitted modestly: “It’s awfully difficult for a writer to say anything about their own style. I am not conscious of having a style. I try to write as well as I can, to write precisely and musically. To be too self-conscious about one’s own style would be fatal.”

PS: The festival season is well underway and my teenage son’s just got back from Cornbury (see above). He managed three hours’ sleep in three days, lived off a diet of burgers and pancakes (definitely nothing green) and arrived home looking exhausted and distinctly muddy. He wasn’t convinced about Cornbury’s headline acts before he went but has now turned into a firm fan of Status Quo. “Except they did sort of shuffle up and down the stage like old men,” he said. Which, I suppose, is precisely what they are these days.

5 comments so far

  • A couple of people have said they’ve had problems trying to comment so I’m trying this as a test. Thanks so much for commenting by the way – I love hearing what you think!

  • It sounds a great book. I will definitely be taking it with me on holiday to France. PS Status Quo takes me back but I think they should stay in retirement

  • I have got this book on my shelf at the moment and can’t wait to read it! Would love to have seen Hollinghurst himself…

  • He spoke brilliantly, Adele, and it was a huge privilege to hear him read from the book. I hope you enjoy it too.

  • Hi Emma, I’ve been reading the book for my book group. I was completely enthralled by the prewar section – it felt so authentic – both the characters, dialogue, setting, but am less engaged now, that I am at the prep school (early sixties)…..No longer feel the pull to get back to it. It’s so beautifully written though.

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