Alan Hollinghurst's characters like going to parties; or, if they don't exactly like going, they can't, for various reasons, stay away. Nick Guest, the main character in Hollinghurst's previous novel, The Line of Beauty, was, as his name suggests, a wonderfully social being and the novel, which won the Man Booker Prize, offered a vivid portrait of the cultural and sexual mores of 1980s London. Now, seven years later, in The Stranger's Child, Hollinghurst once again sends his characters to many parties. He is a dazzling writer, but never more so than when describing an extended scene with people coming and going, and having one too many gin and tonics.
Like Hollinghurst's previous novels, The Stranger's Child is unabashedly ambitious in theme and intelligent in execution. It begins in the summer of 1913, at a small country house outside London called Two Acres, and ends in 2008. Over almost a century, the novel follows the fate of various characters who either knew Cecil Valance or who are drawn to his legend and in particular a poem he wrote – Two Acres – which celebrates, in its expurgated form, a certain kind of Englishness (and in its unexpurgated form another). Despite its scope, the narrative is for the most part intimate rather than panoramic. Three of the five sections cover little more than a day. We see Hollinghurst's characters for a few hours at widely spaced intervals.
The luxurious opening section shows George Sawle bringing Cecil home from Cambridge University. George has never brought home a friend before, and the household, especially George's younger sister, Daphne, are deeply interested in this visit. Cecil himself is, as befits a legend, both robust and elusive in these pages. He flirts with Daphne, has sex with George and generally disrupts the household. Before leaving, he writes in Daphne's autograph book the poem that will later, after he dies in France, be quoted by Churchill and make him famous.
The next section, set in 1926, shows Daphne, now married to Cecil's brother, Dudley, presiding a little uncertainly over Corley Court, the Valance home. A hectic weekend house party has been convened to assist Cecil's first biographer. Cecil has been dead for only a little more than 10 years, but already his life story is surrounded by confusion as lovers and friends carefully edit their memories. The narrative follows a number of characters, but it is Daphne, struggling with her guests, her would-be lover, her brutish husband, her mother and her children, who is at the centre of this gathering and who demonstrates most acutely Hollinghurst's gift for conveying complex emotions.
The next section jumps 40 years. We meet Paul Bryant, a bank teller, and Peter Rowe, who teaches in a prep school housed at Corley Court. The two end up attending Daphne's 70th-birthday party. After three marriages, she is at work on her own memoir. Undaunted by the fact that she remembers almost nothing that was said or done after cocktail hour, she falls back on vigorous invention. And in the fourth section, Paul, who has become a book reviewer and writer, is interviewing Daphne for a biography of Cecil, whose famous poem, he has become convinced, was written not to Daphne but to George.
Hollinghurst, however, is not only interested in myth-making and biography. Threaded through these pages is a history of the possibilities open to gay men prior to 1967, when homosexuality was legalized in Britain, and afterward. George, who adored Cecil and Cecil's attentions, marries a fellow historian, the mannish Madeleine. Revell Ralph, a gay designer, ends up being seduced by Daphne and marrying her. Other men remain bachelors of a more or less ambiguous kind. But by the last scene in the novel, which is set in 2008 at Peter Rowe's memorial service, we have homosexual partners openly and warmly acknowledged.
Hollinghurst has in other books written explicitly about sex, and The Stranger's Child represents a notable departure. Although Daphne at one point accuses Paul of looking for smut, the sex here is, for the most part, handled with reserve – a hand on the thigh, a furtive kiss. While this reticence about both physical and emotional matters seems right for the characters, it does, at times, make the narrative feel almost too lifelike. In my smutty way, I craved just a little more drama, just a little more certainty, which is, after all, one of the traditional pleasures of the novel. But this is like complaining about the lack of cream puffs after a 10-course meal, a very small quibble about a magnificent party.
Margot Livesey grew up on the edge of the Scottish Highlands and spent her 20s waitressing in Toronto. Her new novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, will be published in January.