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Customer Review

105 of 113 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Forster's Epigone?, 2 Nov. 2011
This review is from: The Stranger's Child (Hardcover)
Hollinghurst often reminds me of E.M.Forster with his nostalgia for the early C20 and his focus on the minute details of people's thoughts, observations of one another and interrelationships, all presented in well-crafted prose (apart from the odd clunky phrase like "she said carryingly").

Charismatic, arrogant and manipulative, the aristocratic Cecil Valance achieves a possibly undeserved popularity as a poet after his early death in the First World War. Can the truth of his life ever be told by biographers? This seems unlikely since even those who claim to know him have very different perceptions. In five separate sections separated by gaps of several years or even decades, the author aims to show the false nature of memory.

You could argue that Hollinghurst is daring in discarding many of the "conventions" of novel-writing. The development of a strong plot is given second place to what often reads like a series of short stories: portrayals of characters who make only brief appearances, or the description of quite minor incidents, evocative of past generations, but very amusing, ludicrous or in the style of a black comedy. The author tends to build up anticipation of a certain outcome, only for it not to occur, insofar as one can judge! Significant events are frequently no more than implied.

Although this book promises much, my growing suspicion that it would not deliver proved justified. It suffers from being too long, repetitive in its limited revelations and self-indulgent, not least in its campness - I grew tired of "blushing" and "giggling" men of all ages.

It does not bother me that most of the characters are very middle class , but there are certainly too many of them to relate to easily, and I was left feeling I had waded through an Oxford don's overblown soap opera fantasy.

I know that "the stranger's child" is a quotation from Tennyson's "In Memoriam" read aloud by Cecil in Part 1, and thanks to Roderick Blythe for explaining to me in the comment below its meaning in the title.
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Showing 1-10 of 18 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 13 Nov 2011 08:00:00 GMT
Last edited by the author on 13 Nov 2011 08:01:53 GMT
The quotation is from In Memoriam CII, and is about the way that things, places and people that are important to us are so rapidily forgotten: each generation operates carelessly amidst the ruins od a more or less unregarded past, and even our own lives are full of forgotten, unregarded, or deliberately erased momories. The Stranger's Child, is the person who will inherit our homes, throw away our furniture, and burn our papers: he, or she, is the person who will barely think of us - that ever increasing volume of forgotten humanity. But why, beyond this, Hollinghurst repeatedly drags in Tennyson is something of a mystery to me - I have asked the same question as you in my own piece, but I haven't had a reply. Perhaps we'll have to wait for Jamea Naughtie and 'Book Club' to be set right, but I've always felt that having to explain things to perfectly intelligent people is the index of a writer's failure to communicate his ideas in the first place.

In reply to an earlier post on 13 Nov 2011 15:52:13 GMT
Antenna says:
Thanks for taking the trouble to provide an explanation. You seem to have answered my question, since the book ends with a "stranger and child" casually burning some old correspondence which might have yielded vital information on "the real Cecil". Also along the way, there are plenty of examples of characters deliberately trying to hide and distort the truth, or misrepresent it through partial knowledge to those coming after them, some of whom are ironically quite keen to know "what really happened".

I suppose that an author might enjoy giving a novel a deeper level accessible only to lovers of Tennyson. Intellectual snobbery does not bother me much if a book is otherwise good, but I suspect some writers suffer from delusions of grandeur.

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Mar 2012 12:28:52 GMT
The Stranger's Child

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Mar 2012 14:14:04 GMT
Enigmatic?!

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Mar 2012 16:37:53 GMT
Last edited by the author on 5 Mar 2012 16:44:39 GMT
No enigma just incompetence on my part. What I intended to say was that Hollinghurst himself might be suffering from the Stranger's Child Syndrome insofar as his preoccupation with the corrupt rich is starting to feel a little passe and immoral in these auster times. Why do some writers think the rich are so different to the rest of us. At least Hemingway got that one right. But it isn't your turn yet, I was planning to reply to you. I am a novice when it comes to the etiquette of inernet communication. One wouldn't want to be a nuisance. Margaret Mac.

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Mar 2012 18:48:31 GMT
[Deleted by the author on 5 Mar 2012 23:46:15 GMT]

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Mar 2012 23:43:56 GMT
Last edited by the author on 5 Mar 2012 23:47:11 GMT
Antenna says:
I have no objection to novels about rich or privileged people, but I like them to seem real, and the characters in this novel do not convince or move me as real people. I have the possibly unfair impression that Hollingshurst lives happily in the ivory tower of academia, and may have lost contact with "ordinary people".

I have just finished reading Vasily Grossman's "Life and Fate". In this, a key character is Viktor Shtrum, who, despite being a brilliant physicist (and translated from the Russian to boot) comes across as an entirely convincing, complex, flawed,"real" person i.e. you recognise this quality when you meet it in a novel.

BTW I see Cecil as full of the arrogance of his class, with a manipulative personality which may come from an inherited sense of entitlement.

In reply to an earlier post on 10 Jul 2012 13:11:52 BDT
A. Redpath says:
I have just finished this novel and enjoyed it very much but agree that it was sightly over - long capturing the atmosphere brilliantly for the first two thirds of the book. I felt less empathy for the characters at the end. I'm a librarian and was pleased to see a reference to 'Mr Stallworthy' whose 2 vol work I had just purchased at auction for our War Poet's Collection .

In reply to an earlier post on 10 Jul 2012 15:02:05 BDT
Antenna says:
Thanks for your feedback.

In reply to an earlier post on 10 Jul 2012 17:07:41 BDT
Last edited by the author on 10 Jul 2012 17:12:03 BDT
I suppose that the fate of Mr.Stallworthy, is, in a way, a case in point. I remember reading his fine biography of Wilfrid Owen in about 1974, and some of his verse thereafter, but I had forgotten him until I read the reference in this book.

It is difficult to know how well-caught the atmosphere is - one would have to have been there, but having been to school in the 1960s at a decayed great house - complete with pederasts posing as pedagogues, I can pretty well vouch for the authenticity of Part 3.

Perhaps the reason that you don't like the later parts because they so successfully convey the depressing realities of the second half of the century?

The character whom I chiefly remember now is Daphne's damaged son: we are given some privileged access to his interesting - and poetic - mind in Part 2, but when we see him through the eyes of Paul Bryant, he appears as a strange and diminished figure.

I remain intrigued this book: it doesn't work for me, but I can see how well engineered it is - I think the problem may be that my approach to cultural and spiritual life is simply not aligned with those that the seem represented in the book - and what point is relentless cleverness if it leaves the common reader feeling that he has very probably missed the point?
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