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This review is from: The Stranger's Child (Hardcover)
Alan Hollinghurst's "The Stranger's Child" was seven years in gestation. It has been worth the wait. It surpasses even his "The Line of Beauty" which took the Man Booker Prize in 2004.
"The Stranger's Child" comprises five episodes set in 1913, 1926, 1967, 1980 and 2008. The first section is a sort of reverse Brideshead, recounting the visit of aristocratic, Cambridge poet Cecil (that's "Sizzle" to you and me) Valance to the upper middle middle class home of his undergraduate friend George Sawle. Cecil not only makes mad love to George but, in the Bloomsbury tradition, also flirts heavily with his impressionistic, sixteen year old sister, Daphne. Before he leaves, he inscribes a poem, "Two Acres" in her autograph book. This poem casts a long shadow over the narrative. There is controversy over whether its subject is Daphne or George. Two other versions emerge, one with secret homoerotic verses, and a second public version with lines retrofitted to make it more prescient of the coming of war.
Subsequent episodes in the novel portray the steady progress of both families and their houses towards reduced circumstances, with many surprising and amusing developments. Cecil, who is killed on the Western Front, becomes a legendary figure a la Brooke (a "first rate example of the second rate poet who enters into common consciousness more deeply than many greater masters" in the words of another character). Much of the plot thread is based on the efforts of various editors and biographers to untangle the truth about his sexuality by tracing missing letters and interviewing the surviving principals who evince varied levels of cooperation and mentis compositeness.
While "The Stranger's Child" is much more than simply a "gay novel," it tracks social and personal attitudes to homosexuality from an era in which it is an open secret in certain circles, unmentionable in others and subject to elaborate concealment including by marriage and the siring of children, through the period of reassessment when its physical manifestation was decriminalized and it could be written about openly by novelists such as Wilson and breakthrough biographers such as Holroyd (both are mentioned in the book) to the present day where a memorial event for a prominent gay man is held in one of London's grandest clubs and attended by several gay men who are in civil partnerships.
Holinghurst's writing is masterful. His prose is beautifully hewn; his descriptive writing, social observation and ability to drop fully formed characters into his narrative are superb. He has matured from previous books: the treatment of characters, even doubtful ones, is more generous; the sex is less in-one's-face, and the irony kinder. There is even playfulness in the way that he obliges readers to piece together what has happened between episodes and in the way that he reveals the current station of characters from prior chapters. The book is full of literary echoes, Waugh, of course, Forster, Tennyson (from whose In Memoriam the title is taken), Housman, Hartley and more currently Byatt and McEwan at least. But these are worn lightly and enrich rather than over burden the novel.
So, who is the eponymous stranger's child? A rather-too-easy answer is provided towards the close of the novel, but for most of the book I had assumed it to be the poem, "Two Acres." In Tennyson's original context, the reference was to private landscapes passing into a public domain. That will do well here.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 11 Jul 2011 18:04:15 BDT
H. Frohmann says:
The fourth section takes place in 1980, not 1989, and Cecil's surname is Valance, not Valence.
In reply to an earlier post on 12 Jul 2011 13:41:20 BDT
Thanks, Professor Frohman. Corrections duly submitted!
In reply to an earlier post on 12 Jul 2011 21:38:57 BDT
Katharine Kirby says:
I really like your review, you write so fluently.
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