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on 11 May 2017
Excellent book. Really enjoyed it and love Alan Hollinghurst's writing. Very clever the way the different parts are interlinked. Definitely recommend it..
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on 30 September 2012
I did enjoy this novel, it is well written and I did enjoy the characters. I could have done with some of them being fleshed out a little bit more though. I found the ending somewhat lacking. I would recommend it though.
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on 30 June 2012
Beautifully written as one would expect (though some of the dialogue is a bit clunky), but over-long, repetitive, and without a sympathetic character whose hand the reader can hold to lead him/her though the labyrinthine 'plot' (if such it can be called). I am about two-thirds the way through the novel, and finding it hard to keep track of all the characters: many of them are superfluous to the development of the story (do we need to know the names of all the employees in Keeping's bank, or all the staff at Corley Court prep school?). They serve only to distract the reader from the story: if they are included to place the action in a particular time and place, then the device fails to work.
Not having lived in 1913 or 1926 I'm uncertain if the author's depiction of the mores and speech-patterns of those times are accurate. But I do know that the section set in 1967 contains many anachronisms - ('Twist and Shout'? - 1967 was the Summer of Love, not the height of Beatlemania!)and the term 'yonks' was obsolete by 1964. I have no sense of this section being set in a period which had has resonance for me, but perhaps this is because I was neither aristocratic nor homosexual.
However,I will persevere until the end.
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on 24 June 2013
I haven't read any of Alan Hollinghurst's previous work, but I'm impressed by this one. What follows are notes on aspects of it that I found interesting;

TITLE: The stranger's child is Cecil Valance, who comes in 1913 as a visitor to Two Acres, home of the widowed Freda Sawle and her three children. The middle child, George, brings Cecil from Cambridge, where the two are members of the Apostles, an intellectual club-cum-debating society with a strong homosexual component to its membership. Cecil's family is from a higher social class -- his home Corley Court is quite grand in Victorian Gothic manner -- and he is a budding poet who, while at Two Acres, writes a poem in the autograph book of Daphne Sawle that becomes a "classic" of pre- WW1 England in something of the manner of Rupert Brooke's "If I should die . . ." (Brooke is mentioned, as is Lytton Strachey, as Apostles known, though not well, to Cecil and George). But Cecil is the stranger's child in another sense -- after his death in battle in 1916, and after his poems become better known, he becomes in effect the child of strangers, people in later generations who for aesthetic, economic, and sexual reasons are fascinated by his story. The final section of the book, set early in the 21st Century, shows him still an object of fascination. He is, however, never pinned down; he remains a mystery to the end. In the opening section -- the only one in which he is alive -- we are given no access to his inner life. All we know of him we have to infer from the reactions of the Sawle household. "The stranger's child" is also a phrase from Tennyson's "In Memoriam" (T. had also been an "Apostle"), and the section of the poem in which it appears is read by Cecil in the first section of the book. It's no accident that it is by far more powerful and moving than anything that Cecil manages in the way of poetry, and it foreshadows the fate of Two Acres and of Cecil himself.

GENRE: The default mode of the novel, so to speak, is comedy of manners, and this is a considerable feat, for Hollinghurst has to manage a variety of modes here, since the manners of pre WW1 England are not the manners of 1926, 1967, the 1980's etc. One of the unobtrusive triumphs of the novel is the way in which Hollinghurst brings these different periods and milieux convincingly to life. What's common to all is the presence of characters who find themselves in social situations that they are unable to "read" with confidence. It's going too far to call these characters unknowing, but they are limited and are aware that they are. Both Daphne and Freda Sawle are such characters, and so is Paul Bryant who finds himself uneasy in a number of situations that his background has left him unprepared for. There's a lot of humor at the expense of such characters in the novel. But if the default mode is "comedy of manners," there are undercurrents of poignancy and pathos that engage us, in something of the way that such moments do in Austen's "Persuasion," although the plots and scopes of the novels are not at all alike. We never see WW1 directly, but we see the damage that it inflicted on survivors -- Dudley Valance, Cecil's brother is psychologically disturbed, and his marriage to Daphne (who had thought herself beloved of Cecil) ends early. Freda Sawle, in one of the book's most poignant moments, recalls at a distance of ten years getting the message of the death of her oldest child, Hubert; and Hubert figures again near the book's end when we are given access to some letters from the front written by him to an older male neighbour who was in love with him.

SEXUALITY: Most of the male characters are either homosexual or interested in both sexes. Some are comfortable with their sexuality; others are less so. Hubert Sawle is aware of his neighbour's infatuation, but it makes him uneasy. He is not presented as robustly heterosexual. Revel Ralph, Daphne's second husband, is clearly and apparently comfortably attracted to both men and women. Paul Bryant is homosexual, and his discomforts are social and intellectual. The women, except for one minor character, are heterosexual but sometimes drawn to homosexual men. A lot of the humor of the novel comes from the discomfiture about uncertainty about sexual leanings, as well as from social and intellectual differences. The ways in which these and other characters appropriate Cecil, or his memory, is what the book is about.

HISTORY: Throughout the first section of the novel (1913) war with Germany is imminent, and in the second section we see its effects, though we see other things too -- and in the third section, set around 1967, one character (the husband of Corinna, Daphne's daughter by Dudley Valance) is disturbed by the effects of his WW2 service. After that, what we might call later world-historical events don't impinge on the scene.

FINALLY . . . I've said nothing about the plot in detail. Read it and enjoy it.
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on 20 June 2016
“The Stranger’s Child“ is full of Hollinghurst trademarks but very different from his previous books. Here, the explicit yields to the implicit, the narrative provides only just enough clues, and the reader must settle for a more frustrating kind of satisfaction. The point of the book is the fleeting nature of memory and the past, but one is left with the impression that Hollinghurst has thrown up the chance of much interesting writing, perhaps even ducked out of the challenges he implies but fails to take up.

As in “The Folding Star“, Hollinghurst places a fictitious artist – in this case a poet – in an historical setting: indeed the book is framed by two scenes depicting Tennyson, whose presence is echoed at various key points in the narrative. History seems both to repeat itself and yet never really to go away, however elusive it proves to be in the reconstruction. The poet, one Cecil Valance, appears alive only in the first of five parts, set in 1913. After his death in „the War“ in 1916, we follow the fates of two families, his own aristocratic one and that of his middle-class friend George, as we are fast-forwarded to 1926, then 1967, 1980 and lastly the beginning of the current millennium. Cecil is however always present, both in conversation, preoccupation, and in the form of the (misleading) statue on his tomb. The constant reference to real events and historical persons is all of a piece with the quest to pin down the past and find out “what really happened” which drives the book forward.

Hollinghurst deploys his characteristically episodic narrative technique, in which story takes second place to set-pieces, which require the reader to deduce what must have happened in the intervening years. But here the technique works less well than in “A Line of Beauty”, because each set-piece, set years after the previous one, introduces a largely new set of characters, such that none are really developed into a convincing whole, not even those that recur. It is quite hard work keeping track of who is who, not least because nobody is particularly appealing. Moreover, some of the characters are not entirely consistent with themselves: both Paul and Rob are given quips which lie uneasily with the one’s haplessness and the other’s apparent superficiality, and Paul reappears as an effusive queen quite out of character with his bank-clerk beginnings.

On the other hand, the narrative is held together by recurring scenes and stereotypes: the depiction of Tennyson in part one is recalled in part four in the description of Cecil’s brother, Dudley Valance and again in the fleeting appearance of Dudley’s grandson Julian in part five, before Tennyson himself is given the floor as the book draws to a close. Similarly, Paul Bryant, Cecil’s would-be biographer, is repeatedly ferried around by car in part three; then in part four Paul himself hails and pays for a taxi for Cecil’s by now aged ex, Daphne; and in part five Daphne’s grand-daughter is also helped into a taxi by a younger man. Cecil’s mother is nicknamed “the General”; in one scene in part four a real general appears. This way of holding the novel together is also part of its message about the passage of time, inherited traits and chance resemblance.

In one respect, though, Hollinghurst’s narrative technique marks a departure. “The Swimming-Pool Library” and “The Folding Star” are both first-person narratives; “The Spell” is narrated in the third person; and “The Line of Beauty” is all but a first-person narrative: Nick is present throughout the novel, such that “he” could be replaced by “I” without any real change of perspective. In “The Stranger’s Child”, however, Hollinghurst narrates every chapter in the third person, but each time from the point of view of that chapter’s central character. It all feels rather experimental. At times the effect is jarring, as when the by-now familiar Paul is referred to by Rob (yet another late arrival in the novel) as “Bryant”: true, Paul is not familiar to Rob, but the reader is left wondering what it all adds up to. I am not convinced that an omniscient narrator would not do just as well. Perhaps the really daring thing would have been to have a different first-person for each chapter: just as with “The Line of Beauty”, I feel that is what is really happening.

Echoes of familiar Hollinghurst techniques include Dudley’s reference to his brother as “Sizzle”, recalling Justin’s name-games in “The Spell”, most notably “Sissy” for Sicily: but I missed the camp fun of the earlier novel. Dudley’s second wife, Linette, recalls Sir Maurice Tipper’s ghastly Tory wife in “The Line of Beauty”, whilst Dudley’s appearance amidst adulation at an Oxford gathering in advanced old age is a re-working of Margaret Thatcher’s attendance at Gerald’s birthday party. But each time I felt the echo was just that, a faint repetition of what Hollinghurst has already done better elsewhere. This is even true of the characteristic final come-uppance, so devastatingly applied to the narrators of “A Swimming-Pool Library” and “The Folding Star”: here Jennifer’s late revelation about Paul Bryant is something of a come-down by comparison.

More generally, Hollinghurst successfully applies the technique pioneered in “The Swimming-Pool Library”, of contrasting prose styles: in the earlier book the narrative prose was consistently distinguished from Lord Nantwich’s journal; here, the main narrative is interspersed with letters, excerpts from Dudley’s and Daphne’s biographies, and passages of Paul’s diary, all recognisably and interestingly different from each other. Indeed it is in his use of English that Hollinghurst’s talents are as fulsome as ever. Some sentences are short but most are long and painstakingly built: we get the Russian doll – a main clause containing a subordinate containing a second subordinate - alongside a sentence twice as long with not a single main verb, in which everything hangs on a series of word-repetitions and at times unusual participles: “It seemed to Rob a bit rum that a man who could unlock a strong-room had to take a hacksaw to a book”, with its dactylic rhythms, is followed by the verbless sentence: “A handsome book, too, the inner border of the binding tooled in gold, thick gold on the page-edges, the endpapers with gold-seamed crimson marbling, bound by Webster’s, ‘By Appointment to Queen Alexandra’.”

Clearly Hollinghurst is trying out something new here. His use of the implicit, rather sparing elsewhere and most striking at the end of “A Folding Star” in the oblique revelation of Luc’s fate, is here very much to the fore. Where sexual encounters were once richly described, here we have only Cecil’s excessively large gratuities to tell us that he must repeatedly have taken advantage of Jonah the valet. What was once a full-scale discovery in flagrante delicto in “A Swimming-Pool Library” becomes a black-and-white photograph of Cecil and George semi-clad taken by an anonymous onlooker, most probably Hubert, amply supplied with overgenerous presents by an older man to whom Cecil, we learn in the last few pages, sent overtly homosexual verse, though even this is implied, not stated. It is in this sense that Hollinghurst has not written the book he might have done: descriptive skills so originally and vividly deployed elsewhere are here held in check. The point may well be that it took the one hundred years of the twentieth century for all this to “come out”. But my frustration with the novel runs deeper: just as so many scenes are hinted at but not described, so we are denied more than a tantalising glimpse of the poetry that is the one lasting trace of the irrecoverable Cecil. I wonder whether, in allowing the verses of this “second rate poet” to burn in the concluding bonfire, Hollinghurst is telling us that there are some things he feels incapable of attempting.
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on 15 October 2012
this book was ordered and arrived promptly. it was the book that my wifes monthly bookclub had chosen so she was able to read it ready for the clubs review
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on 24 May 2014
What a shame ... such a disappointing book. In the end I gave up part way through. I couldn't get to care about the characters and so, despite repeated attempts to push myself through it, couldn't care about what happened to them and where it went. I sometimes thought that perhaps the author was trying too hard.
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on 8 April 2012
The Stranger's Child is almost certainly well written... I am sure the editing was first class with nary a word out of place. The research spot-on and the depiction of the middle and upper echelons of the British class system is probably second to none. The problem? the big fat sweaty ugly truth about this exceedingly mannered book? It has no heart. I didn't care about Cecil, Daphne, George, Paul, Peter or any of the other tedious middle/upper class parodies that populated this frosty little story which had a whole heap of leering and palpitations but no love, no courage, no point. This book actually made me sad because it was a void.
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Not as completely engrossing and hypnotising as The Spell or The Line of Beauty, this is nonetheless an amazing book. It does start rather slowly: I felt especially uninvolved by the rather repellent, manipulative poet Cecil, whose presence haunts the entire book. Then there is frustration because just as one starts to enjoy a particular set of characters, it is all change (due to the book's episodic structure), and the time machine moves forward by decades. With each new beginning, much plot development has taken place "offstage", and it sometimes leaves the reader a bit flat to be told a particular character died/ committed suicide/was killed in the war, in quite such a cursory manner.

On the other hand, Hollinghurst has the most amazing ability to evoke particular physical states of being: desire, arousal, drunkenness... and to send the reader through the different periods of time, using tiny details, without it ever being 'historical' in the annoying fashion of historical fiction. It plays with fictionality and story, questioning biography, lies and letters along the way. And the way in which the novel evokes the hidden world of homosexuality, its existence in the woods, laundry rooms and inglenooks, behind sheds, on the backseats of cars, and on the rooftops, just out of sight of all the 'normal' folk, is spectacular; as is Hollinghurst's account of how secrets move slowly to the surface in life, sometimes never quite making it.

Though some reviewers have commented there's less actual sex than in "the Line of Beauty", the novel's treatment of gayness is really powerful; watching how life changes for the gay characters, I felt very moved at the point where it becomes possible for someone to be announced as a man's 'husband'.

The book has an extreme beauty, as a result of so clearly capturing a reality; I just wish so much that there had been one character in it I had really liked, and had been able to follow from start to finish. I understand this was part of the long timespan, but it seemed very slightly cold. I can't take off a whole star for that, though! So five stars: extremely beautiful.
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on 28 January 2012
I started this book full of hope. I adored The Line of Beauty - and the first chapter of The Stranger's Child drew me in so completely I immediately put the book down as i didn't want to finish it too soon! The characters pre WW1 were so engaging and the elegance and wonderful descriptions were what I expected after LOB. I was glad to see such strong female characters here and i know that had been a criticism in the past - in fact they stood head and shoulders above all the men. Alan Hollinghurst is obsessed with class but that is okay as so are most of we, the subtle tell tale signs which give the imposters away are so well described - as are all the socially awkward situations as we expect. The only question I would have is does Mr H really think every man has had/would have a gay experience? or is it an aristocracy thing? This aspect made it seem unlikely as I cant recall one male in the book where at least a liaison was suggested. However I was dying to see how the secret which had been believed destroyed for so long would emerge - but it didn't emerge and the end of the book was the biggest let down ever - I felt like it just trailed off. I actually started thinking I must have skipped a chapter but no - perhaps it leaves it open for a sequel but I wont be buying in hard back next time. Whilst I am still thinking about the characters in the earlier chapters, the later ones were less charming. I still love the wonderful writing - but after such a wait for this - I was a little annoyed by the last page - I was robbed!
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