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on 9 October 2012
I have no doubt that this novel will be on an Eng. lit reading list in universities in years to come. It reminds me of E.M. Forster and I wasn't surprised to see Forster quoted and later Virginia Woolf and Ivy Compton Burnett referenced. The novel will offer students ample opportunity to dissect it as EngLit students do, as they try to work out the author's intentions and produce their own "clever" theories.
I enjoyed the first half of the novel and liked the device of jumping forward in time in each section so that the reader took a while to work out who the new characters were and what was their relation to previous characters. However by the time Paul Bryant was established I was losing the will to live. I rarely ever abandon a book and so I continued in the belief that somewhere all of it would come together and that Cecil Valance would prove to be more than a literary device on which to hang a novel. I re-read the last section thinking that I had missed something, but all I was left with were characters with feet of clay and few redeeming features. Perhaps it was the author's intention to portray human life as infinitely forgettable. If so he succeeded.
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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 4 August 2017
Not really my favourite book of all time but some will love it.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 14 August 2011
This is a tantalising and indirect kind of book which takes an oblique look at English life in the last hundred years, from just before the first world war to something very contemporary. Issues of class are there, and the changing social attitudes to gayness, but do be aware this tends to be set, whatever the period, in a rarefied, intellectual, Bloomsbury-esque world where everyone is a writer.

Other readers have likened it to Atonement,The Remains of the Day, and The Go-Between: but none of those novels has the historical sweep of this one and the themes, I think, are quite different. It reminded me more of Possession, especially the focus on excavating the literary past and the issue of `owning' the war poet Cecil Valance, but is more impersonal and emotionally detached than that book.

The first section set in the run-up to the first world war is the one most people seem to be talking about but it is worth knowing that this is only one of five and the rest are set in very different times (1926, 1960s, 1980s, 2000s) so that golden, elegiac, Edwardian mood is only one part of the book and, for me, the most vivid and satisfying.

There is something frustratingly episodic and a tad disjointed about the book overall. One of the main threads that pulls the whole thing together is the literature surrounding Cecil Valance: from his own poems in the first section to the biographies, histories, edited collections, edited letters etc. that are based on and which surround him so that we are always dealing, to some extent, with a fictionalising of a personality, rather than the thing itself.

Hollinghurst writes wonderfully well with a crafted ease which never feels overly self-conscious or stretched. But I have to admit I found the whole thing a little oblique and intangible. To some extent one of the themes is the creation and self-fashioning of a literary personality and a past associated with him, and so the book overall can feel a bit insubstantial for all its wide, historical view and large cast of characters.

Overall, then, I liked this book, perhaps more for its style and writing than its actual story, but I didn't love it.
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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 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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