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In the late summer of 1913, George Sawle brings his Cambridge schoolmate—a handsome, aristocratic young poet named Cecil Valance—to his family’s modest home outside London for the weekend. George is enthralled by Cecil, and soon his sixteen-year-old sister, Daphne, is equally besotted by him and ...
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In the late summer of 1913, George Sawle brings his Cambridge schoolmate—a handsome, aristocratic young poet named Cecil Valance—to his family’s modest home outside London for the weekend. George is enthralled by Cecil, and soon his sixteen-year-old sister, Daphne, is equally besotted by him and the stories he tells about Corley Court, the country estate he is heir to. But what Cecil writes in Daphne’s autograph album will change their and their families’ lives forever: a poem that, after Cecil is killed in the Great War and his reputation burnished, will become a touchstone for a generation, a work recited by every schoolchild in England. Over time, a tragic love story is spun, even as other secrets lie buried—until, decades later, an ambitious biographer threatens to unearth them.
Rich with Hollinghurst’s signature gifts—haunting sensuality, delicious wit and exquisite lyricism—The Stranger’s Child is a tour de force: a masterly novel about the lingering power of desire, how the heart creates its own history, and how legends are made.
“A running motif in this witty and ultimately very moving novel is that certain truths—like the gay relationships of that earlier time, perhaps all human desires—are unrecordable and, to some extent, unknowable. The past and the present form a kind of palimpsest that leaves neither wholly legible. The book raises many such ideas, but they sit lightly on the page and never dampen the vibrant pleasures of Hollinghurst’s prose or his sparkling dialogue. There are echoes of E. M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen and others, but The Stranger’s Child is a Great English Novel in its own right, and a tantalizing read.”
—Tom Beer, Newsday
“[Hollinghurst] is a writer who revels in the long form. This time he even seems to re-invent the form. The Stranger’s Child has an exceedingly clever structure; it’s essentially five big set pieces, separated by time and history, that take us from 1913 to the present. . . .[It] is both an up-to-date narrative and one of those old-fashioned family sagas with a gay twist . . . Hollinghurst brings to life with enormous skill séances, dinner parties, walks in the woods, children’s theatricals, memorial services, interviews, a weekend in a great house. . . . A tour de force.”
—Andrew Holleran, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide
“The questions of who wants to keep the past buried and who will finally tell the truth and risk being vilified are essential to Hollinghurst’s remarkably textured tale of historical misconceptions. . . . Writing with a surgeon’s precision, Hollinghurst stages a splendid satire on the English social strata of the 20th century at a time when their formal structure was inevitably fraying around the edges. . . . This gorgeous novel is Hollinghurst’s pièce de résistance, grandly capturing the beauty, despair, and desire of the British upper class, the fragile mess of lives in the footnotes. Showcasing academic pages dog-eared by the march of time, The Stranger’s Child displays the defeated dreams of two families as much as it demonstrates the enduring legacy of a poet’s life and his work.”
—Michael Leonard, Curled Up With a Good Book
“A sly and ravishing masterpiece. . . . The novel skips with indecent ease through 100 years of British political and literary history, concealing its mighty ambition in charm and louche wit. It's a devastating history of gay love, erasure and resilience. It's also a ripping yarn, a simple love (or rather, lust—Hollinghurst's characters are too Wildean for love) story as literary whodunit: Brideshead Revisited crossed with Possession. . . . Behind the bloom of Hollinghurst's prose, another project quietly unfurls. As much as The Stranger's Child is about England and Englishness, about war, about the impulse toward biography, it's profoundly and unmistakably a secret literary history. It's the tapestry of British literature turned around to reveal its seams, to reveal that the history of the British novel has been the history of gay people in Britain. It's Oscar Wilde and A.E. Housman, E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf and the entire Bloomsbury set, a history—as Cecil's is—of invisibility, secrecy and scandal, censure and frenetic posthumous outing. This précis might be stuffy; the book never is. The Stranger's Child restores gay life and love to the vibrant center of the British novel without a hint of solemnity or righteousness, only supple prose and a sodden, fun bunch of obviously, gloriously gay characters. Seldom has literary restitution proved so pleasurable.”
—Parul Sehgal, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“The high road of modernism has proved unmarked, [but] few see their way so clearly and with such a sure sense of direction as Alan Hollinghurst, whose new novel might be one of the books that Forster did not dare to write in those frightened and fallow years between the publication of A Passage to India and his death in 1970. . . . Hollinghurst, among other things a brilliant impersonator, gives us early on a taste of Cecil's verse . . . the kind of thing the Georgians, and the Edwardians, loved. Hollinghurst has caught the tone and the sentiment brilliantly. As this novel attests at every level, in the matter of English usage, manners, and mores its author is gifted with perfect pitch. Cecil Valance, with his truculent gaiety and his big hands, is a wonderful creation, the perfect type of upper-class aesthete of the time: self-assured and overbearing—a bully, mocking, and entirely in thrall to himself and his distinctly modest talent. . . . Hollinghurst is a master storyteller, and his book is thrilling in the way that the best Victorian novels are, so that one finds oneself galloping somewhat shamefacedly through the pages in order to discover what happens next. The writing is superb—I can think of no other novelist of the present day, and precious few of the past, who could catch human beings going about the ordinary business of living with the loving exactitude on display here. Two or three times on every page the reader will give a cry of recognition and delight as yet another nail is struck ringingly on the head. Even Forster, with his eye for detail, could not connect with such accuracy and panache. . . . Dazzlingly atmospheric . . . fantastically intricate windings of a plot, with all manner of excursions along the way—a sequestered cache of letters, questions of doubtful paternity, clandestine affairs—in other words, all the twists and turns that human relations will insist on making. For the daring of its setting out, and for the consistent flash and fire of the writing, The Stranger's Child is to be cherished.”
—John Banville, The New Republic
“A sweeping multi-generational family saga . . . beautifully written. The Stranger’s Child has been compared to the work of Evelyn Waugh, E. M. Forster, and, as with Hollinghurst’s previous novels, Henry James, as well as that of contemporaries like Ian McEwan (for Atonement, which, on the surface, has many similarities) and Kazuo Ishiguro (for The Remains of the Day). But Hollinghurst brings a precise elegance to the genre, building upon the novels that came before it. This was the first novel in a long while that pulled me in wholeheartedly. We live in a time when things struggle to stick: competing influences, recommendations, and links, bombarding us and casting aside one new thing for the next. . . . It seems difficult to imagine that we wouldn’t take all of these characters with us through our lives in turn.”
—Elizabeth Minkel, The Millions
“Masterful . . . Few novels so skillfully revealed what's really said behind polite facades, and The Stranger's Child displays that talent on a broader canvas. . . . Hollinghurst is a superior novelist of manners, and the brilliance of The Stranger's Child is in how it reveals the ways bad blood and secrets muck with history. When everybody strains to say the appropriate thing, the facts suffer. That theme is perfectly suited for Hollinghurst, who can reveal a host of hidden messages in the simplest utterance (or pursed lips). . . . Psychologically penetrating. . . . brilliant.”
—Mark Athitakis, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“At once classically literary and delightfully, subversively modern . . . The Stranger's Child is easily [Hollinghurst’s] most subtle and most ambitious novel. Hollinghurst is a master observer of human and social behavior. As told in five sections spanning nearly a century, The Stranger's Child uses the mode to startling, marvelous effect, as his characters grow old and perish while the fractured, uncertain memories of each remain—for future inhabitants to debate and unearth . . . Fans of Hollinghurst know him for his flawless phrasing, his wickedly funny depictions of class and society, and his distinctive, enduring sensuality, all of which continue here, but in telling the story of a young poet's legacy over the course of a century, Hollinghurst displays an exciting shift from earlier work. . . . Unlike other novels that make use of lengthy passages of time and revolve around long-deceased characters, The Stranger's Child is not as absorbed with nostalgia. It's a clear-eyed look at how strange and perplexing memory is, and how vague and uncertain our relationships, sexual and otherwise, can be. It's a thrilling, enchanting work of art, and the latest in what we can only hope will be a very long career.”
—Adam Eaglin, The San Francisco Chronicle
“Magnificent . . . insightful. Hollinghurst explores how a living, breathing existence can become a biographical subject riddled with omissions and distortions. . . . Hollinghurst divides the novel into five novella-length sections, in each of [which] he demonstrates his knack for conjuring the moments between events, the seeming down time in which the ramifications of turning points in life sort themselves out. His immersion in each period is fluid and free of false notes, collectively fusing into a single symphonic epic. . . . [a] beautifully written, brilliantly observed and masterfully orchestrated novel.”
—Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times
“Gorgeous . . . Brilliant in its subtle structure, The Stranger’s Child is Hollinghurst’s most ambitious novel. Mandatory reading: a beautifully written, exceptionally intelligent daisy chain of ideas.”
—Band of Thebes
“Daring . . . fresh and vital. Hollinghurst’s fine new book [is] the closest thing he has written to an old-fashioned chronicle novel. Underpinned with a range of styles that run from Iris Murdoch to William Trevor and back to [E.M.] Forster, the novel is divided into five parts that play out over five different decades. Its characters are almost all ensnared by a figure who dies early in the book: magnetic young Cecil Vance, a kind of ‘upper-class Rupert Brooke,’ moderately gifted but probably ‘second-rate.’ Killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, he leaves behind a poem celebrating the verdant landscapes and snug domestic pleasures Britons want to believe they’re fighting for. Hollinghurst performs the feat of making [Cecil] more three-dimensional than Brooke managed to be in life, [with] an aggressive intensity, a slightly poisonous allure that keeps a reader [going] through the literary afterlife constructed for him. . . . The dominant figure of the book’s second half is born long after the poet’s death. Paul Bryant first appears as a sympathetic, striving, literary-minded young man, but his emerging capacities for ingratiation and chicanery gain him eventual success of a biography that outs Cecil, and makes Bryant’s name. Hollinghurst’s evolving portrait of this publishing scoundrel—from a callow fellow we first root for to a boorish showoff with a comb-over—is an even stronger, more extended achievement than his creation of Cecil. From era to era, Hollinghurst remains wonderfully precise. The overall success is remarkable. The texture of the writing feels steadily satisfying . . . The novel has plenty of secrets to spill before it’s finished. Daphne credibly ages into a figure out of Muriel Spark, tattered and ancient and not quite able to keep straight the various biographers still in pursuit of a main whose affections and importance she needed to exaggerate. Among all Hollinghurst’s sharply drawn characters, she best illustrates the biographical truth that sources can have a command equal to subjects.”
—Thomas Mallon, The New York Times Book Review
“Wonderfully pleasing. Cecil Valance, an aristocratic young poet, is paying a visit to Two Acres, the home of his Cambridge friend George Sawle, and the young men steal away for a tryst. What this brief visit initiates is a double legacy, whose evolution Mr. Hollinghurst traces in episodes that span the 20th century. The public legacy centers on the poem Cecil writes in the autograph album of George's sister Daphne. Titled ‘Two Acres,’ it will become a patriotic classic during World War I, after Cecil is killed in battle and deified as so many real-life soldier-poets were. The private legacy, passed on through the decades in hints and secret deductions, is the story of Cecil’s love for George, which Mr. Hollinghurst presents as a model and emblem of the gay counter-tradition in English literature. For the novelist, the story of Cecil Valance allows a fresh approach to a venerable theme—the contingency of literary reputation, the dubious nature of biography. . . . Mr. Hollinghurst cleverly puts the reader in the position of the biographers who will seek the truth about Cecil. We, too, are left to deduce a man from a few brief observations and to reflect on the sheer randomness of what posterity preserves. . . . Hollinghurst dramatizes the contingency of memory and the unreliability of biography with great skill—honed by his own years working as an editor at the Times Literary Supplement. . . . What really distinguishes The Stranger’s Child is its brilliant narrative economy. Each of its five sections covers just a few days in the life of the characters, always centered on a party—gin-soaked flappers in the 1920s, teenagers doing the twist in the 1960s, middle-aged literati at a memorial service in 2008. Yet in these brief glimpses, Mr. Hollinghurst conveys the vast changes in England and the world that took place over the generations. We witness the fall of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle class, the repurposing of stately homes, the arrival of American air bases, finally even the transformation of literary life by the Internet. And Mr. Hollinghurst does all this while preserving a truly Jamesian fineness of perception, his own consciousness darting around those of his characters, recording every desire and hesitation and misunderstanding. It is this novelistic intelligence that makes The Stranger's Child such a pleasure to read, and Mr. Hollinghurst one of the best novelists at work today.”
—Adam Kirsch, The Wall Street Journal
“Gloriously rendered . . . The newest book from Booker winner Hollinghurst opens with sunshine, and ends in ashes. He shows us summertime, curling smoke, orgasms, things that are weightless and momentary, and then traces their silent impressions through time. This novel is concerned with how our artefacts of memory are pressured by insubstantial transformative forces such as desire and weather, fashion and commerce. While the backdrop is made up of weighty items, from the battlegrounds of WWI to large country houses, the public school system, and the citadel of the literary canon, they’re all shown to be susceptible to these momentary flickers of impulse and heat, as are these characters that live the breadth of the 20th century. . . . What is interesting about all the couplings in The Stranger’s Child is that a quick tumble in the hedgerow develops its own type of immortality. Like a much-anthologised poem . . .the fumbled couplings of the characters reveal themselves to be the turning points of their secret memories and public lives. . . . Poignant. . . beautifully written.”
—Margaret Howie, Bookslut
“Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child could hardly be better, and it’s a mystery to me—and to many others—why it didn’t make this year’s recent shortlist for the Man Booker Prize. Perhaps quiet perfection is out of fashion in our noisy era. The Stranger’s Child opens in the golden sunshine just before World War I [and] in this initial section of a book rich in facets and characters, Hollinghurst effortlessly channels the tone of E.M. Forster’s early novels. The dinner-table banter alludes to Tennyson and Lytton Strachey, Wagner’s operas and the Cambridge secret society known as the Apostles, while beneath the decorous surface of the conversation run myriad erotic tensions. A distinctively Edwardian high-spiritedness abounds. Hollinghurst effortlessly juggles several points of view (including a 6-year-old’s), slowly revealing people’s true characters while keeping the reader guessing about the erotic intentions of various guests: Who is having an affair with whom? I’ve deliberately kept Hollinghurst’s revelations inviolate and only hinted at his range, his ear for dialogue and his almost-Tolstoyan clarity about time’s ravages and surprises. Most novelists tend to be slightly show-offy, in one way or another. But Hollinghurst doesn’t need to be a prose Johnny Depp. Instead, he writes with the relaxed elegance and unobtrusive charm of a Cary Grant. Part social history, part social comedy and wholly absorbing, The Stranger’s Child does everything a novel should do and makes it look easy.”
—Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
“The success of The Line of Beauty meant that Alan Hollinghurst’s next book was surely going to be eagerly anticipated. But the seven-year wait for The Stranger’s Child and the steady unfurling of its ambition over the novel’s 435 pages has had another effect too. It has dawned on people that Hollinghurst, the gay novelist, might also be the best straight novelist that Britain has to offer—that is, the writer whose talents sit most comfortably within the contours of the form. . . . The Stranger’s Child stands comparison to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections for the way that the sweep of the narrative, its simultaneous flicker of comedy and drama, is matched and sustained by the precision and the leisurely economy of its individual sentences . . . The Stranger’s Child spans almost a century. And here, too [as in his previous books] sex opens up the novel, though the thing unlocked is not the small, cloistered world of Edwardian privilege but of all English literary history. The book’s sections are linked by two houses that, in their different ways, stand witness to social decline: Corley Court, a Victorian pile, home of the aristocratic young poet Cecil Valance; and the more modest Two Acres family home of George Sawle, his friend, and lover, from Cambridge. With [this] novel Hollinghurst imaginatively insists that our literary tradition would be unrecognizably depleted without the submerged current of homosexuality. And that The Stranger’s Child itself is the culmination of not only Hollinghurst’s ambition but that secret literary tradition to which it is addressed. It is a claim that is hard to dispute.”
—Geoff Dyer, New York Magazine
“[Alan Hollinghurst,] the author of The Line of Beauty (2004), writes like Henry James, but without the obfuscation; his gorgeous sentences home in on the delicate nuances of human relationships but don't sacrifice the larger social canvas along the way. In this novel, he follows a wealthy British family as its members negotiate the post-World War I landscape. Imagine a faster-paced and slyer Masterpiece Theatre production, with homoerotic interludes.”
—Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune
“Lives tangle and untangle in a literate, literary mystery at the heart of World War I by Man Booker Prize winner Hollinghurst . . . How do we know the truth about anyone’s life? [This] carefully written, philosophically charged novel invites us to consider that question.”
“With the prewar ambiance of Atonement, the manor-house mystique of Gosford Park, and the palpable sexual tension of Hollinghurst’s own The Line of Beauty, this generously paced, thoroughly satisfying novel will gladden the hearts of Anglophile readers.”
—Barbara Love, Library Journal
“The buzz is running hot for [Hollinghurst’s] new novel, which sprawls across a century of life in England . . . [and] follows the evolution of Cecil’s posthumous literary reputation, using it to reveal the complex love story that unfurled at the beginning.”
—Lev Grossman, Time Magazine
“Erudite, stylish, very amusing . . . Hollinghurst’s characters are often plunked down on the edge on an era just as it slips into the past, partially aware that they are witnesses to a moment that is disappearing in front of them. . . . The Stranger’s Child concerns the brief life and long afterlife of glamorous poet Cecil Valance, a raffish young product of Cambridge. Cecil’s death in World War I catapults his reputation and canonizes the misty odes and patriotic sonnets he left behind. In five sections, each focusing on a different character decades removed from the Edwardian era in which the poet lived, and all narrated through Hollinghurst’s mordant voice, the novel follows Cecil’s literary reputation across the last century and into the present one, all the way up to 2008, when a used-book seller hunts for a likely lost trove of poems while fumbling with his text messages. . . . A novelist with a historian’s engrossment in the past and a critic’s sensitivity to taste and judgment, Hollinghurst is an aficionado of the English literary heritage [and] in The Stranger’s Child, that bookish fascination envelops every aspect of the novel. . . . Hollinghurst is a marvelous ventriloquist of the period stylings of Cecil and of his brother Dudley Valance . . . Seemingly everyone in The Stranger’s Child has written a book or a memoir or a [book of] popular history. And the most deftly turned of Hollinghurst’s set pieces in the novel occur in precisely those locales where the legacy of English letters is most batted about: in the cluttered offices of the TLS, where Hollinghurst himself worked for years as an editor, and at an academic conference on the literature of World War I at Oxford, where Cecil’s future biographer is cowed by the sight of Jon Stallworthy and Paul Fussell. . . . Part of the considerable pleasure in reading The Stranger’s Child is Hollinghurst’s ease in weaving all these literary strands across the ambitious structure of the book. Its span covers nearly a hundred bumpy years of literary history, during which the tapestry of ‘English letters’ becomes unraveled and rethreaded to generate unexpected patterns. . . .There is a poignancy and a humor that is far from conventional, and a sense of an ending that outlasts the comforts of closure.”
—Eric Banks, Bookforum
“Hollinghurst, author of the Man Booker Prize–winning The Line of Beauty, stakes his claim for Most Puckishly Bemused English Novelist with this rambunctious stepchild to the satires of Henry Green, E.M. Forster, and especially Evelyn Waugh. . . . Time plays havoc with fashions, relationships, and sexual orientation; the joke is on the legions of memoirists, professors, and literary treasure hunters whose entanglements with eyewitnesses produce something too fickle and impermanent to be called legend. Hollinghurst’s novel could hardly be called overserious . . . A sweet tweaking of English literature’s foppish little cheeks by a distinctly 21st-century hand. Longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize.”
“When you read a great novel, you feel like your intelligence is being enhanced, that your imagination is being trained to be sharper. It’s like what Berenson said about art: it’s an enhancement of life. Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child hit me that way. . . . Reading The Stranger’s Child is like diving into sponge cake. It’s a delicious and sensuous experience. But there’s a high order of sustained intelligence at work that knows how to defer the ultimate pleasures of literature until just the right time. There’s a command of character and its expression. Conversations have a main current as well as eddies and undertows in the body language and the dialogue so that you feel as a reader that you’re drifting in several directions at once, all of them interesting. . . . [Hollinghurst is a] master of all-encompassing charm. . . . I don’t know what [he’s] like at a party, but I imagine that he owns the room. Because as a writer, he owns the room. . . . [The Stranger’s Child is] a great mystery story, creating the myth of a lost gay tradition in literature. But it’s also a novel that cherishes the perceived connections of the whole human family, gay or straight. . . . The glittering quest for our cherished literature, for what we hold and treasure and for what has slipped away from us and been lost, has never been told better than it is here.”
—Dennis Haritou, Three Guys One Book
From the UK:
“Hollinghurst’s new novel is great. In the midst of The Stranger’s Child I felt the disconcerting sensation that I’d had while reading [his previous books]: that the author is someone who notices, senses and understands things about people that they don’t want anyone to see, that they make efforts to conceal, that they might not even be aware of themselves. It’s the opposite of X-ray vision; more like an instinctive and highly cultivated understanding that the smallest gesture, if viewed and articulated with sufficient precision, can convey a truth that is unique to a given individual and, simultaneously, freighted with universal significance. This ability has deepened with each book but in [The Strangers Child] he seems to have historicized it. Hollinghurst makes one believe absolutely in the inexhaustible vitality of the English novel. And he does this so comfortably (so Englishly?), within the established procedures of fiction, that it never occurs to one to use a word like genius.”
—Geoff Dyer, The Guardian (UK)
“In The Stranger’s Child [Hollinghurst] weaves a number of stories around the idea of [Rupert] Brooke and his posthumous fortunes, detailing the lives caught up in the reputational arc of a Brooke-like poet called Cecil Valance between 1913 and 2008. . . . Hollinghurst writes with amused tenderness but he also puts both hands on opportunities for irony, arch humour and, intermittently, an un-Jamesian directness. . . .The Stranger’s Child has an intricate armature of doublings, foreshadowings, James-style withholdings, Proust-style ‘ways’ (‘the country way, and the suburban way’) and leitmotifs, one of them literally Wagnerian . . . The period details work well, the conversations unspool effortlessly, and there are many good jokes. . . . he’s very funny . . . In addition to providing an elegant ending, he makes the book into an elegant gesture: a critic-pleasing novel depicting critics and biographers as being essentially parasitic and, even when right, point-missingly or irrelevantly so.”
—Christopher Tayler, The London Review of Books
“The publishing event of the year . . . A substantial novel spanning the years 1913 to 2008, with decades-long leaps—it covers a vast amount of territory. It’s an alternative literary history of England in the 20th century. It’s about the traumatic effects of two world wars. It’s about aesthetic failure and moral failure, and the ways the two are linked. It’s about each generation’s desire to over throw the tyranny of taste handed down to it. It’s about rises and plunges in literary reputations. It’s about the changing fortunes of the aristocracy and the haute bourgeoisie, from Bloomsbury to now. It’s about transformations in sexual mores. It’s an anti-nostalgic, cold-eyed portrait of overly romanticised periods in the recent English past. . . . Most compellingly, it’s about the desire to both hide and to uncover past events, about the limitations of literary biography and the impossibility of an afterlife in which one’s character—and even one’s activities—are accurately remembered and reported. . . . Hollinghurst conjure[s] each period in the style of its time, without resorting to pastiche. The Stranger’s Child is a comedy of manners, exuberantly funny, as well as a literary mystery, filled with elegant and erudite tips of the author’s hat to other writers—not just Tennyson, [Rupert] Brooke, but E.M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley and many more. And each part is sealed with a kiss.”
—Alex Bilmes, Esquire (UK)
“Brilliantly written, intricate and wide-reaching . . . An almost century-long cavalcade of changing social, sexual and cultural attitudes, exhibited in sensuously imagined scenes and scrutinized with ironic wit . . . Marvelously acute in its attention to idioms and idiosyncrasies, tone and body language, psychological and emotional nuances, the book gives intensely credible life to its swarm of characters . . . Masterly in its narrative sweep, richly textured prose and imaginative flair and depth, this novel about an increasingly threadbare literary reputation enormously enhances Hollinghurst’s own. With The Stranger’s Child, an already remarkable talent unfurls into something spectacular.”
—Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times (London)
“Not only Alan Hollinghurst’s most ambitious novel to date, but also his funniest since The Spell . . . Hollinghurst is perhaps our most literary contemporary novelist, in the sense that his books are . . . playfully, but never merely flippantly, studded with allusions. . . . The principal theme of the workings of time and memory [is] brilliantly embodied in the book’s structure, with its bold narrative leaps forward . . . The novel’s long chronological reach (1913 to 2008) allows the sometimes melancholy but often comic workings of time to become apparent. . . . In a novel covering a large swathe of time, an entire era or society can be evoked in a phrase . . . Period indicators are always spot on . . . Although many of the scenes he describes are in themselves amusing, his great comic gift is displayed in the precise deployment of language as much as in the beadiness of his observation. Like Evelyn Waugh he creates comedy from the tension between the elegance of his prose and the often indecorous things he is describing, and so the reader is caught between amusement and exhilaration when someone with a terrible hangover staggers to the lavatory where he is ‘sick, in one great comprehensive paragraph.’ Hollinghurst’s pouncing on exactly the right, though often unexpected, word for his purposes is all the more effective for occurring in a prose of considerable poise. . . . In this populous story even the most minor character is brilliantly realized, and Hollinghurst’s nimble changes of narrative perspective frequently wrongfoot the reader, whose sympathies undergo a number of unexpected readjustments. Beautifully written, ambitious in its scope and structure, confident in its execution, The Stranger’s Child is a masterclass in the art of the novel.”
—Peter Parker, The Times Literary Supplement (UK)
“Highly entertaining and, as always with Hollinghurst, the dialogue is immaculate and the characterization first class. . . . Every Alan Hollinghurst novel is a cause for celebration, and this spacious, elegant satire is no exception.”
—David Robson, Sunday Telegraph (UK)
“Bloody-hell-this-is-good . . . Punctuated by abrupt and jagged turns of fate, skillfully redolent of life lived forwards, this story is fabulously involving and rich. It’s also very funny, in a dry and forgiving way. The silky precision of its prose . . . is matched by the mimetic completeness of its fictional world. This is an exercise in realism of a dazzlingly high order: it really does seem to be observed rather than imagined. The touches of extraneous detail are unobtrusive, concrete and exact. . . . The Stranger’s Child is a knowingly literary performance: a descendent of E. M. Forster or Evelyn Waugh by way of A. S. Byatt and the Ian McEwan of Atonement. . . . The novel’s presiding tone [is] arch humor. That humor is central: softening the book’s melancholy with a wan and forgiving sense of the vanity of human wishes. . . . In the end, the central character in The Stranger’s Child is neither Cecil nor Daphne, but time itself, breaking the threaded dances and the diver’s brilliant bow. There’s a whiff of the Possession-style scholarly page-turner in the closing sections . . . but the larger movement of the story is towards entropy. More of the past is always going to be lost than recovered. Rather than use its scale to produce the weightless afflatus of a family saga, The Stranger’s Child captures as well as anything I’ve read the particular gravity of time passing, and the irrecoverable losses it brings with it. It is an extraordinary achievement.”
—Sam Leith, The Spectator (UK)
“An opulent epic that follows the variegated fortunes of two aristocratic families from 1913 to 2008. . . . Possibility and fumbling desire run through the narrative like a rippling electric current. . . . Mortality [and] mythology feed into an extravagant and playful riff on literature itself, rich with references to the novels of E. M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh and Hollinghurst’s beloved Henry James. . . . Like everything Hollinghurst writes, the story also has a keen sense of aesthetics and the history of taste.”
—Claire Allfree, Metro (UK)
“Sumptuously retelling a familiar narrative of English decline through a series of friendships and encounters which form a sort of daisy chain of erotic and literary influence, [The Stranger’s Child is] elegant . . . affecting, erudite [and written] with tenderness and sensuous immediacy. As an accounting with class and history, Hollinghurst’s new novel will be compared to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and Ian McEwan’s Atonement. . . .The novel deals with the short life and posthumous reputation of Cecil Valance, a poet whose lyrical outpourings are given huge poignancy by the carnage of the trenches. . . . Hollinghurst has a feel for the fragility of memory, and the brutality inherent in the modernist drive to ‘make it new.’ Victorianism, with its sentiment, clutter and decorum, has special importance in The Stranger's Child . . . It is the signal achievement of The Stranger’s Child to show that, despite the silence in which relationships like that of Cecil and George were shrouded, their influence has echoed on through the years, as an unconscious pattern for other friendships and love affairs. In the present day, when the immediacy of a young man reciting Tennyson has been replaced by a website with audio clips mouthed by an animated Tennyson avatar, this tradition persists, against the odds.”
—Hari Kunzru, The Observer (UK)
“Intelligence, perceptiveness, skill and sensibility . . . [this is] a complex, stylish comedy of class, politics, art and sexuality . . . The Stranger’s Child feels like the kind of novel that [E. M.] Forster might have written . . . An impeccable, ironic, profoundly enjoyable plot structure, with ‘secrets nested inside each other,’ The Stranger's Child could be usefully compared with A. S. Byatt’s Possession in its account of the way [the poet] Cecil [Valance] is mythologized by memory, misunderstandings and lies . . . It is Corley Court, the ‘violently Victorian’ ancestral home, which is at the heart of the novel. Like Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Darlington Hall and Sarah Waters’s Hundreds Hall, the house is both the setting and the magnifying glass under which the characters’ obsessions and frailties are to be exposed. . . . The narrative [is] largely carried by dialogue, much of it so freighted with irony as to be a delight in itself. Musical performances reveal character (another Forsterian hallmark), but the novel’s chief pleasure is itself akin to music: characters and details concerning life and love move in and out of focus to reveal unexpected discords and harmonies. . . . Probably the best novel this year so far . . . Gorgeous.”
—Amanda Craig, The Independent on Sunday
“Delightful . . . In Hollinghurst’s eagerly awaited new novel we see that if history is written by the winners, biography belongs to the survivors. . . . Tremendously readable and engrossing.”
—John Harding, Daily Mail (UK)
“If this wonderfully well-made and witty novel doesn’t win the Man Booker Prize, there is no justice in the world. . . . This is Brideshead Revisited in reverse. . . . Hollinghurst evokes the world of [Rupert] Brooke and of the Bloomsbury set. And he does so through the depiction of the sort of people who have written about that world—Michael Holroyd, the biographer of Lytton Strachey and George Bernard Shaw, comes to mind. This evocation is refreshingly ironic, even satirical, as is the comic nailing-down of what it's like to be a book reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement (of which Hollinghurst was once deputy editor). . . . The real villain is the passing of time. . . Constantly provocative, intricately plotted, slyly hilarious—in short, a triumph of the storyteller's art.”
—Brian Lynch, Irish Independent
“Eagerly awaited . . . Charming . . . Perfect . . . Hollinghurst writes so carefully and subversively, often with one eyebrow raised in sardonic amusement as he satirizes the excesses of his mostly high-born protagonists . . . elegant people partying on the edge of the abyss . . . [He] is interested in what it means to love someone or something that is perpetually unattainable . . . The Stranger’s Child is broader in scope and more generous in outlook than anything [he] has written before, as well as being structurally his most ambitious work and his most restrained sexually. What remains absolutely characteristic is the gracefulness of his sentences, scrupulously scene-shaping and mood-patterning.”
—Jason Cowley, Financial Times
“Hollinghurst, with his perfect pitch for such evaluations, has cast [poet Cecil] Valance as one of literary history’s natural marginalia. Here is a Rupert Brooke-alike with a poetic talent as nostalgic and overblown as the turreted Victorian pile he stands to inherit, which would look rather small if it ever came detached from his personal charms. . . . [The Stranger’s Child’s] subject—of memory and memorial, and the fates of the keepers of the flame—has never have been done as amusingly. . . . Moreover, Hollinghurst’s genius for literary pastiche is so developed that his invented productions—Cecil’s poems, Dudley and Daphne’s memoirs—aren’t just note-perfect exercises in wit and accidental self-exposure, they’re actually quite accomplished on their own terms. I feel this is difficult and generous; and that this forgiveness, this capacity for tenderness, is the greatest of Hollinghurst’s many novelistic gifts. We marvel at the imaginative sympathy that makes his characters inhabit the moment.”
—Nicola Shulman, Evening Standard (UK)
“Intricate, witty, playful . . . Comedy of manners, investigation of class, changing political and social landscape—all the reliable pleasures that Hollinghurst’s fiction offers are here in their dense, detailed richness . . . It is woven with stupendous deftness, its internal assonances making a complex, comprehensive harmony. . . . Of all the impeccably weighted secrets and surprises in the book, [the conclusion] is the most unexpected and returns the book, in a graceful circle, to its beginnings, giving to it a magnificent coherence in its meditation on the slippages between lived life and its written or recollected versions.”
—Neel Mukherjee, The Times (London)
“Engrossing . . . This epic novel, seven years in the making, bears the stamp of posterity: a book that will feature in school syllabi and ‘top fives’ for decades to come. Spanning a century, it opens in 1913 on a summer’s evening brimming with romantic promise. . . . Well worth the wait, it’s a treasure of a novel you'll read more and more slowly for fear of it ending.”
—Kate Green, Country Life (UK)
“Captivating . . . Flawlessly executed . . . Elegant, seductive and extremely enjoyable to read, and peppered with astute, apparently casual noticings . . . With his balance of surface glitter and steely precision, irony and deep seriousness, Hollinghurst is usually seen as an heir to Henry James. But he must also have had a passionate infatuation with Brideshead Revisited. . . . Hollinghurst has a strong, perhaps unassailable claim to be the best English novelist working today. He offers surely the best available example of novelistic ambition squared with the highest aesthetic standards. Where so many fiction writers seem stylish but austere, or full of life but messy, Hollinghurst has his cake and eats it. His novels cover high life and low life, culture and instinct, jokes and opera, with equal confidence. He can follow the consciousness of an individual in amazing detail, as well as subtly dramatizing the wider social and historical currents . . . His best books are beautiful at the level of the sentence and impressive at the levels of character, incident and plot; they manage to be nearly perfect and great fun at the same time. . . . The Stranger’s Child will no doubt be one of the best novels published this year. . . . Stunning.”
—Theo Tait, Book of the Week, The Guardian (UK)
“Masterful . . . Sleek, seductive and a little sly . . . There is also a lot that is purely and simply very funny. . . . There is something symphonic about [the novel’s] wholeness. There is also something filmic in the book’s enveloping embrace . . . Brilliant.”
—Keith Miller, The Daily Telegraph (UK) (4-star review)
“Expansive and extensive . . . Inspired . . . Playful . . . A remarkable, unmissable achievement, written with the calm authority of an author who could turn his literary gifts to just about anything. . . . One leaves the novel with a sense of the truly extraordinary. . . . While The Stranger’s Child tells a very particular story—of the life and legacy of a war-slain poet—it simultaneously maps the thousands of changes to befall England, Englishness and English subjects across the past hundred years. . . . [It] positively teems with droll, well-observed accounts of both childhood and adolescence . . .Throughout The Stranger’s Child we are given the thrilling impenetrability and imprecision of lives as they are truly experienced. . . . Impossible as it is to circumnavigate its myriad achievements in a brief review, The Stranger’s Child is stunningly easy to commend. It is a rare thing to read a novel buoyed up by the certainty that it will stand among the year’s best, but rarer still to become confident of its value in decades to come (notwithstanding the cautionary example of [poet] Cecil [Valance]’s ‘pretty phrases, which Hollinghurst—first published as a poet—evidently enjoyed concocting). I would compare the novel to Middlemarch, for its precision, pathos (a less expected quality, perhaps) and perfect phrasing, were Eliot not so underappreciated as a comic writer today.”
—Richard Canning, The Independent (UK)
“The range of eras and voices affords Hollinghurst ample opportunity to display an impressive mastery of prose style, and his portrait of Daphne—who begins as a doe-eyed young innocent only to age into a cantankerous old bully—is unforgettable.”
—Time Out (London)
“One of our sharpest and most enjoyable contemporary novelists . . . Exhilarating deftness . . . The Stranger’s Child deals with profound themes of memory, reputation and the passing of time, but always with a sense of comedy, and with the linked sense that comedy and tragedy are always intertwined . . . Quite brilliant . . . Hollinghurst manages the concertina effect with extraordinary assurance, and at various key points his novel has an almost mystical ability to see time past and time present merging into one . . . The Stranger’s Child is brilliantly inventive in the way it delivers social comedy powered by sexual passion . . . its ingenuity cannot be doubted . . . The Stranger’s Child has a wonderfully calm assurance about it; an earned sense of self-confidence rare in modern literature. Sir Cecil Valance’s reputation may dwindle with time, but Alan Hollinghurst’s will surely endure.”
—Craig Brown, “Book of the Week” Mail on Sunday (UK) (5-star review)
“A rollicking ride with biting wit and observant prose. Bring it on.”
—Country & Town House magazine (UK)
“Portraying two families and spanning the 20th century, it is ambitious, epic and satisfying. If you loved Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, you’ll devour this.”
“The Stranger’s Child is something of a dichotomy: epic in scope, but minute in its details. . . . To say it is eagerly awaited is like saying JK Rowling is a tad popular. . . . The Stranger’s Child does not disappoint. A study on fame and the passing of time, it is as compulsive as anything [Hollinghurst has] written. It begins with a weekend at the Sawles’ family home in 1913, and the arrival of a poet named Cecil Valance who writes a poem that becomes lauded after Winston Churchill quotes from it. Over the following decades, a variety of journalists and biographers try to piece together what happened that weekend to inspire such a book. . . . Buy it, then relish and bathe in every word. [This] novel warrant[s] obsessive appreciation of every line”
—James Mullinger, GQ (UK)
In the United States, World War I is something of a cipher, overshadowed by the conflagration that came after it. But in Britain, more than ninety years after the Armistice, it's still the war to end all wars. The biggest hit of 2010 on British television was Downton Abbey, an upstairs-downstairs drama whose subsequent season visits the trenches of the Somme. The National Theatre's play War Horse, set on the battlefields of France and Germany, has been a long-running hit in London. And the 2011 Mercury Prize, Britain's most prestigious music gong, went to PJ Harvey for Let England Shake, a brutal, uncompromising war album that visits the hell of Gallipoli, "an unearthly place" where "soldiers fall like lumps of meat."
And now comes The Stranger's Child, the first novel in seven years from Alan Hollinghurst, a century-spanning exploration of World War I's effect on British life and literature. "People can't get enough of the War," one character says late in the book, and even though we are in Thatcher's London there's no mistaking which capital-W war she means.
In particular The Stranger's Child looks at the tradition of war poetry, the verse of such soldier-writers as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Rupert Brooke, whom Americans know only glancingly but British schoolchildren still read, if no longer memorize, as early as primary school. The novel opens in 1913, when Cecil Valance—that's "SEH-sill" with a short E, though some of the novel's archer aristocrats say it as "sizzle"—spends the weekend at the house of George Sawle, his boyfriend up at Cambridge. Cecil is already making a name for himself as a poet; George's brother wants to know if he's met "young Rupert Brooke," whom his mother considers "an Adonis." After dinner he gives a reading: a bit of Tennyson and a bit of his own work, which seems to consist largely of descriptions of his own house, a Victorian pile on a 3,000-acre estate in Berkshire. One immodest line describes riding there "clear through a mile of glimmering park."
But before he leaves he inscribes George's sister's autograph book with a long poem about another house: the Sawles' own, much smaller home in Stanmore, then still rural and now part of the London commuter belt known as Metroland. The poem is called "Two Acres," and after Cecil is killed at Maricourt in 1916, it becomes a national touchstone. Over the next four sections of the novel, which are set in 1926, 1967, 1979–80 and 2008, we meet a dozen or more characters whose lives have been reshaped by Cecil's death and subsequent fame: George, who is not unhappily married (to a woman) but still remembers Cecil and "their mad sodomitical past"; his sister Daphne, who has married Cecil's brother Dudley and become Lady Valance in the process; Dudley himself, who despite being "a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and President of British Friends of Sherry" has always felt overshadowed; and a clutch of editors and biographers. But Cecil does not belong to them alone. Winston Churchill cites Valance in a war address. Evelyn Waugh mentions him in his letters. The fictional Valance is even included in Other Men's Flowers, the very real, millions-selling 1944 poetry collection found on nearly every British bookshelf.
Hollinghurst has a lot of fun reconstituting Cecil's poetry, though unlike A. S. Byatt, whose Possession featured entire pages of (fictional) verse, he only gives us a stanza or even a single line at a time. And he suggests that Valance is really not much of a poet at all. Into his customarily gorgeous phrases, the author inserts a clanger of Valance's, such as this sub Ogden Nash couplet: "I wonder if there's any man more / Learned than the man of Stanmore." Few others can write something that awful that well.
The Stranger's Child revisits some of Hollinghurst's enduring concerns: architecture and the social meaning of houses and buildings; the pastoral tradition and the relationship between city and country; and, most obviously, gay life and the construction of gay identity. (Not without cause: Wikipedia, which tolerates little in the way of sexual ambiguity, places Sassoon, Owen, and Brooke under "LGBT People from England.") In 1913, the very vocabulary of gay love is limited, with one minor character noting, not disapprovingly, that George is "very attached to [Cecil], in the Cambridge way." Cecil can only write about his love for George through indirection; "Two Acres" is disguised as an ode to Daphne, while George remembers "parts of it unpublished, unpublishable...secret paragraphs, priapic figures in the trees and bushes."
By the 1960s, Cecil's biographer Paul is in the closet, but he knows he isn't alone. Change is afoot. At a party he speaks hesitantly about "the Bill" that none of the guests can rise to call the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalized gay sex in England in 1967. (Though the age of consent for gays remained twenty-one, five years higher than that for heterosexuals; it wasn't equalized until the Blair government amended the Act in 2000.) The vocabulary of gay desire is evolving, but indirection is still the watchword: perusing the personals in film pictorial mags, Paul alights on "Undisciplined bachelor (32) would like to meet strong-minded person with modern outlook." Nothing so indirect is required by the novel's last section. One character is described as "married," and the clarification that he's married to a man is not even necessary, while the rare-books dealer chasing Cecil's papers is arranging casual sex via text message with a trick whose name he can't remember.
Yet The Stranger's Child is ultimately less about gay history—and still less about gay desire; compared to The Swimming-Pool Library, the author's hothouse of a first novel, this new book is decidedly chaste—than about mythmaking, on both literary and national planes. In the 1920s section Dudley describes Cecil's obituary in the Times as "largely unrecognizable to anyone who'd really known my brother," and the misprisions go on for decades. Halfway through the novel the reader, who ingeniously has been let in on the truth about Cecil right at the start, may bridle as Hollinghurst's characters reinvent his life and poetry for their own purposes, destroying manuscripts or eliding letters with square brackets. But by the end of The Stranger's Child, such concerns seem overwrought. In a twenty-first century of endless war and instant celebrity, two horrors to which Britain has made a special contribution in recent years, Hollinghurst reminds us that the mess of real life can never be boiled down for public consumption and may not have any public meaning at all. Life is to live, "and the rest," as one character says, "is biography."
Jason Farago is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in the Guardian, the London Review of Books, n+1, Dissent, Frieze, and other publications. Trained as an art historian, he has contributed to several exhibition catalogs on art since 1960. He recently returned to his hometown of New York following a long sojourn in London.
Reviewer: Jason Farago
She’d been lying in the hammock reading poetry for over an hour. It wasn’t easy: she was thinking all the while about George coming back with Cecil, and she kept sliding down, in small half-willing surrenders, till she was in a heap, with the book held tiringly above her face. Now the light was going, and the words began to hide among themselves on the page. She wanted to get a look at Cecil, to drink him in for a minute before he saw her, and was introduced, and asked her what she was reading. But he must have missed his train, or at least his connection: she saw him pacing the long platform at Harrow and Wealdstone, and rather regretting he’d come. Five minutes later, as the sunset sky turned pink above the rockery, it began to seem possible that something worse had happened. With sudden grave excitement she pictured the arrival of a telegram, and the news being passed round; imagined weeping pretty wildly; then saw herself describing the occasion to someone, many years later, though still without quite deciding what the news had been.
In the sitting-room the lamps were being lit, and through the open window she could hear her mother talking to Mrs. Kalbeck, who had come to tea, and who tended to stay, having no one to get back for. The glow across the path made the garden suddenly lonelier. Daphne slipped out of the hammock, put on her shoes, and forgot about her books. She started towards the house, but something in the time of day held her, with its hint of a mystery she had so far overlooked: it drew her down the lawn, past the rockery, where the pond that reflected the trees in silhouette had grown as deep as the white sky. It was the long still moment when the hedges and borders turned dusky and vague, but anything she looked at closely, a rose, a begonia, a glossy laurel leaf, seemed to give itself back to the day with a secret throb of colour.
She heard a faint familiar sound, the knock of the broken gate against the post at the bottom of the garden; and then an unfamiliar voice, with an edge to it, and then George’s laugh. He must have brought Cecil the other way, through the Priory and the woods. Daphne ran up the narrow half-hidden steps in the rockery and from the top she could just make them out in the spinney below. She couldn’t really hear what they were saying, but she was disconcerted by Cecil’s voice; it seemed so quickly and decisively to take control of their garden and their house and the whole of the coming weekend. It was an excitable voice that seemed to say it didn’t care who heard it, but in its tone there was also something mocking and superior. She looked back at the house, the dark mass of the roof and the chimney-stacks against the sky, the lamp-lit windows under low eaves, and thought about Monday, and the life they would pick up again very readily after Cecil had gone.
Under the trees the dusk was deeper, and their little wood seemed interestingly larger. The boys were dawdling, for all Cecil’s note of impatience. Their pale clothes, the rim of George’s boater, caught the failing light as they moved slowly between the birch-trunks, but their faces were hard to make out. George had stopped and was poking at something with his foot, Cecil, taller, standing close beside him, as if to share his view of it. She went cautiously towards them, and it took her a moment to realize that they were quite unaware of her; she stood still, smiling awkwardly, let out an anxious gasp, and then, mystified and excited, began to explore her position. She knew that Cecil was a guest and too grown-up to play a trick on, though George was surely in her power. But having the power, she couldn’t think what to do with it. Now Cecil had his hand on George’s shoulder, as if consoling him, though he was laughing too, more quietly than before; the curves of their two hats nudged and overlapped. She thought there was something nice in Cecil’s laugh, after all, a little whinny of good fun, even if, as so often, she was not included in the joke. Then Cecil raised his head and saw her and said, “Oh, hello!” as if they’d already met several times and enjoyed it.
George was confused for a second, peered at her as he quickly buttoned his jacket, and said, “Cecil missed his train,” rather sharply. “Well, clearly,” said Daphne, who chose a certain dryness of tone against the constant queasy likelihood of being teased.
“And then of course I had to see Middlesex,” said Cecil, coming forward and shaking her hand. “We seem to have tramped over much of the county.”
“He brought you the country way,” said Daphne. “There’s the country way, and the suburban way, which doesn’t create such a fine impression. You just go straight up Stanmore Hill.”
George wheezed with embarrassment, and also a kind of relief. “There, Cess, you’ve met my sister.”
Cecil’s hand, hot and hard, was still gripping hers, in a frank, convivial way. It was a large hand, and somehow unfeeling; a hand more used to gripping oars and ropes than the slender fingers of sixteen-yearold girls. She took in his smell, of sweat and grass, the sourness of his breath. When she started to pull her fingers out, he squeezed again, for a second or two, before releasing her. She didn’t like the sensation, but in the minute that followed she found that her hand held the memory of his hand, and half-wanted to reach out through the shadows and touch it again.
“I was reading poetry,” she said, “but I’m afraid it grew too dark to see.”
“Ah!” said Cecil, with his quick high laugh, that was almost a snigger; but she sensed he was looking at her kindly. In the late dusk they had to peer closely to be sure of each other’s expressions; it made them seem particularly interested in each other. “Which poet?”
She had Tennyson’s poems, and also the Granta, with three of Cecil’s own poems in it, “Corley,” “Dawn at Corley” and “Corley: Dusk.” She said, “Oh, Alfred, Lord Tennyson.”
Cecil nodded slowly and seemed amused by searching for the kind and lively thing to say. “Do you find he still holds up?” he said.
“Oh yes,” said Daphne firmly, and then wondered if she’d understood the question. She glanced between the lines of trees, but with a sense of other shadowy perspectives, the kind of Cambridge talk that George often treated them to, where things were insisted on that couldn’t possibly be meant. It was a refinement of teasing, where you were never told why your answer was wrong. “We all love Tennyson here,” she said, “at ‘Two Acres.’ ”
Now Cecil’s eyes seemed very playful, under the broad peak of his cap. “Then I can see we shall get on,” he said. “Let’s all read out our favourite poems—if you like to read aloud.”
“Oh yes!” said Daphne, excited already, though she’d never heard Hubert read out anything except a letter in The Times that he agreed with. “Which is your favourite?” she said, with a moment’s worry that she wouldn’t have heard of it.
Cecil smiled at them both, savouring his power of choice, and said, “Well, you’ll find out when I read it to you.”
“I hope it’s not ‘The Lady of Shalott,’ ” said Daphne.
“Oh, I like ‘The Lady of Shalott.’ ”
“I mean, that’s my favourite,” said Daphne.
George said, “Well, come up and meet Mother,” spreading his arms to shepherd them.
“And Mrs. Kalbeck’s here too,” said Daphne, “by the way.”
“Then we’ll try and get rid of her,” said George.
“Well, you can try . . . ,” said Daphne.
“I’m already feeling sorry for Mrs. Kalbeck,” said Cecil, “whoever she may be.”
“She’s a big black beetle,” said George, “who took Mother to Germany last year, and hasn’t let go of her since.”
“She’s a German widow,” said Daphne, with a note of sad realism and a pitying shake of the head. She found Cecil had spread his arms too and, hardly thinking, she did the same; for a moment they seemed united in a lightly rebellious pact.
While the maid was removing the tea-things, Freda Sawle stood up and wandered between the small tables and numerous little armchairs to the open window. A few high streaks of cloud glowed pink above the rockery, and the garden itself was stilled in the first grey of the twilight. It was a time of day that played uncomfortably on her feelings. “I suppose my child is straining her eyes out there somewhere,” she said, turning back to the warmer light of the room.
“If she has her poetry books,” said Clara Kalbeck.
“She’s been studying some of Cecil Valance’s poems. She says they are very fine, but not so good as Swinburne or Lord Tennyson.”
“Swinburne . . . ,” said Mrs. Kalbeck, with a wary chuckle.
“All the poems of Cecil’s that I’ve seen have been about his own house. Though George says he has others, of more general interest.”
“I feel I know a good deal about Cecil Valance’s house,” said Clara, with the slight asperity that gave even her nicest remarks an air of sarcasm.
Freda paced the short distance to the musical end of the room, the embrasure with the piano and the dark cabinet of the gramophone. George himself had turned rather critical of “Two Acres” since his visit to Corley Court. He said it had a way of “resolving itself into nooks.” This nook had its own little window, and was spanned by a broad oak beam.
“They’re very late,” said Freda, “though George says Cecil is hopeless about time.”
Clara looked tolerantly at the clock on the mantelpiece. “I think perhaps they are rambling around.”
“Oh, who knows what George is doing with him!” said Freda, and frowned at her own sharp tone.
“He may have lost his connection at Harrow and Wealdstone,” said Clara.
“Quite so,” said Freda; and for a moment the two names, with the pinched vowels, the throaty r, the blurred W that was almost an F, struck her as a tiny emblem of her friend’s claim on England, and Stanmore, and her. She stopped to make adjustments to the framed photographs that stood in an expectant half-circle on a small round table. Dear Frank, in a studio setting, with his hand on another small round table. Hubert in a rowing-boat and George on a pony. She pushed the two of them apart, to give Daphne more prominence. Often she was glad of Clara’s company, and her unselfconscious willingness to sit, for long hours at a time. She was no less good a friend for being a pitiful one. Freda had three children, the telephone, and an upstairs bathroom; Clara had none of these amenities, and it was hard to begrudge her when she laboured up the hill from damp little “Lorelei” in search of talk. Tonight, though, with dinner raising tensions in the kitchen, her staying-put showed a certain insensitivity.
“One can see George is so happy to be having his friend,” said Clara.
“I know,” said Freda, sitting down again with a sudden return of patience. “And of course I’m happy too. Before, he never seemed to have anybody.”
“Perhaps losing a father made him shy,” said Clara. “He wanted only to be with you.”
“Mm, you may be right,” said Freda, piqued by Clara’s wisdom, and touched at the same time by the thought of George’s devotion. “But he’s certainly changing now. I can see it in his walk. And he whistles a great deal, which usually shows that a man’s looking forward to something . . .Of course he loves Cambridge. He loves the life of ideas.” She saw the paths across and around the courts of the colleges as ideas, with the young men following them, through archways, and up staircases. Beyond were the gardens and river-banks, the hazy dazzle of social freedom, where George and his friends stretched out on the grass, or slipped by in punts. She said cautiously, “You know he has been elected to the Conversazione Society.”
“Indeed . . . ,” said Clara, with a vague shake of the head.
“We’re not allowed to know about it. But it’s philosophy, I think. Cecil Valance got him into it. They discuss ideas. I think George said they discuss ‘Does this hearth-rug exist?’ That kind of thing.”
“The big questions,” said Clara.
Freda laughed guiltily and said, “I understand it’s a great honour to be a member.”
“And Cecil is older than George,” said Clara.
“I believe two or three years older, and already quite an expert on some aspect of the Indian Mutiny. Apparently he hopes to be a Fellow of the college.”
“He is offering to help George.”
“Well, I think they’re great friends!”
Clara let a moment pass. “Whatever the reason,” she said, “George is blooming.”
Freda smiled firmly, as she took up her friend’s idea. “I know,” she said. “He’s coming into bloom, at last!” The image was both beautiful and vaguely unsettling. Then Daphne was sticking her head through the window and shouting,
“They’re here!”—sounding furious with them for not knowing.
“Ah, good,” said her mother, standing up again.
“Not a moment too soon,” said Clara Kalbeck, with a dry laugh, as if her own patience had been tried by the wait.
Daphne glanced quickly over her shoulder, before saying, “He’s extremely charming, you know, but he has a rather carrying voice.”
“And so have you, my dear,” said Freda. “Now do go and bring him in.”
“I shall depart,” said Clara, quietly and gravely.
“Oh, nonsense,” said Freda, surrendering as she had suspected she would, and getting up and going into the hall. As it happened Hubert had just got home from work, and was standing at the front door in his bowler hat, almost throwing two brown suitcases into the house. He said,
“I brought these up with me in the van.”
“Oh, they must be Cecil’s,” said Freda. “Yes, ‘C. T. V.,’ look. Do be careful . . .” Her elder son was a well-built boy, with a surprisingly ruddy moustache, but she saw in a moment, in the light of her latest conversation, that he hadn’t yet bloomed, and would surely be completely bald before he had had the chance. She said, “And a most intriguing packet has come for you. Good evening, Hubert.”
“Good evening, Mother,” said Hubert, leaning over the cases to kiss her on the cheek. It was the little dry comedy of their relations, which somehow turned on the fact that Hubert wasn’t lightly amused, perhaps didn’t even know there was anything comic about them. “Is this it?” he said, picking up a small parcel wrapped in shiny red paper. “It looks more like a lady’s thing.”
“Well, so I had hoped,” said his mother, “it’s from Mappin’s—,” as behind her, where the garden door had stood open all day, the others were arriving: waiting a minute outside, in the soft light that spread across the path, George and Cecil arm in arm, gleaming against the dusk, and Daphne just behind, wide-eyed, with a part in the drama, the person who had found them. Freda had a momentary sense of Cecil leading George, rather than George presenting his friend; and Cecil himself, crossing the threshold in his pale linen clothes, with only his hat in his hand, seemed strangely unencumbered. He might have been coming in from his own garden.
1. Much of The Stranger’s Child concerns attempts to get at the truth of Cecil Valance. What does the novel as a whole say about our ability to truly know another person? In what ways does it illustrate the limits of our knowing? Do we as readers of the novel know Cecil more accurately than George, Daphne, Dudley—even Sebastian Stokes? What about Paul Bryant?
2. What role does keeping secrets play in the The Stranger’s Child? Why do so many characters feel compelled to lead secret lives?
3. Several characters are said to have had “a bad war,” suffering from what would now be described as post traumatic stress disorder. How has the war affected Dudley Valence and Leslie Keeping in particular? In what ways does World War I cast a shadow over the entire novel?
4. Before her interview with Sebby Stokes for the memoir he’s writing about Cecil, Daphne thinks: “What she felt then; and what she felt now; and what she felt now about what she felt then; it wasn’t remotely easy to say” [p. 141]. Later in the novel, frustrated with Paul’s interview for his biography of the poet, Daphne muses: “He was asking for memories, too young himself to know that memories were only memories of memories” [p.382]. In what ways does the novel suggest that memory, of both facts and feelings, is an extremely unreliable method of recovering the truth?
5. What is suggested by the divergent attitudes expressed in the novel toward Victorianism, especially as it is embodied in Corley House? Why does Dudley detest the house so violently? What is the effect of Mrs. Riley’s modernist makeover?
6. How do English attitudes towards homosexuality change over the period the novel covers, from 1913 to 2008? Why is it important, in terms of Cecil Valance’s biography, that the true nature of his sexuality, and the true recipient of his famous poem “Two Acres,” be revealed?
7. What other important generational changes in English life does the novel trace?
8. The Stranger’s Child is, among many other things, a wonderfully comic novel. What are some of its funniest moments and most amusing observations?
9. Cecil Valance is a purely fictional character—though he resembles the World War I poet Rupert Brooke—but he inhabits a milieu in the novel that includes real people: literary scholars Jon Stallworthy and Paul Fussell appear at a party, John Betjeman attends a rally to save St. Pancras Station, and Cecil is said to have known Lytton Strachey and other members of the Bloomsbury group. What is the effect of this mixing of real and fictional characters?
10. Near the end of the novel, Jennifer Keeping tells Rob that Paul Bryant’s story of his father’s heroic death in World War II is a fiction, that in fact Paul was a bastard. For Rob, this revelation makes Paul “if anything more intriguing and sympathetic” [p. 422]. Do you agree with Rob—is Paul a sympathetic character? How does Paul’s own secret past shed light on his motivations and tactics as a biographer?
11. In what ways does A Stranger’s Child critique English manners and morals? In what ways might it be said to celebrate them—if at all?
12. The novel is filled with remarkable subtleties of perception. After Cecil leaves “Two Acres,” Daphne thinks: “Of course he had gone! There was a thinness in the air that told her, in the tone of the morning, the texture of the servants’ movements and fragments of talk” [p. 75]. Where else does this kind of finely attuned awareness appear in the novel? What do such descriptions add to the experience of reading of The Stranger’s Child?
13. The novel opens with George, Daphne, and Cecil reciting Tennyson’s poetry on the lawn of “Two Acres” and ends with Rob viewing a video clip of a digitally animated photograph (on the website Poets Alive! Houndvoice.com) that makes it appear as if Tennyson is reading his poetry [p. 424]. What is Hollinghurst suggesting by bookending his novel in this way?
14. What does the novel say about how literary reputations are created, preserved, revised?
15. Why do you think Hollinghurst ends the novel with Rob’s unsuccessful attempt to recover Cecil’s letters to Hewitt before they go up in smoke? Is this conclusion satisfying, or appropriately open-ended?
Posted April 21, 2012
The Stranger's Child follows two British families, the Vances and the Sawles, from before WWI to the present. Both families were in the British upper class, with the Vances a bit higher, having a title. The sons of the families, Cecil and George, become friends at college, and the book begins with Cecil Vance's visit to George Sawle's family home on a weekend. Daphne, George's teenage sister, is infatuated with Cecil, too innocent to understand that the young men are sexually involved with each other. Cecil, a budding poet, dashes off a poem in Daphne's autograph book before he leaves. This poem becomes his most famous, and the one by which he is forever known.
The next section occurs after the war. Daphne is now Lady Vance, but is not married to Cecil. Cecil is killed in the war, and Daphne has married his brother Dudley. George is now married and teaching. The section follows their married years and their friends and acquaintances. They are part of an artistic circle with poets, authors and artists.
Fast forward a generation. The Vance family home has now become a boy's school, and Peter Rowe is a schoolmaster there. He begins an affair with Paul Bryant, who works as a bank teller in Daphne's son-in-law's bank. The circle of connection moves forward with Peter being invited to play duets with Daphne's daughter, Corrine, at gatherings at their home.
Another generation. Now Paul has become an author, specifically a biographer. He trades on his acquaintance with the Vance and Sawle families to ferret out their secrets and create a best-seller. George became the author, with his wife, of a famous historical textbook that became the milestone of every British child's education. Daphne spends her old age living with her son, who guards her jealously.
Alan Hollinghurst has created a fascinating book that looks at an era in British history where there were only a limited number of people who 'counted' and they all knew each other in some way, or had some tangential relationship or acquaintance that brought them into the charmed circle. He also plays with the idea of memory, how we are remembered when we are no longer here, and whether memories are ever true or are instead tinged and shaped by what we want to have happened. Families rise and fall, fortunes and titles come and go. The sections are tied together interestingly, with minor characters tieing back in unexpected ways to the two main families. This book has been nominated for the Mann Booker Prize in 2011, and is a well-deserved nomination.
6 out of 9 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 26, 2012
The story and characters were interesting and they are what propelled me to finish this book, but it was not an easy thing to do. I can't put my finger on why, but The Stranger's Child was a very difficult book to read. I could only do it in short bursts as a very little goes a long way with this one. I can't decide if I enjoyed it or not. Mmmmmm . . .
3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
I truly enjoyed this book, the tale was colorfully written, and the characters jumped out at you. I loved coming home after a long day at work, and relaxing after dinner with this book. Phenomenal Author! I also loved THE CHATEAU by C D Swanson. A fantastic tale of intrique, and flamboyant and loving characters that all blend well together. The MC was awesome, and the adventure and shocking twists and turns, made me truly understand the meaning of "page turner!" Love both books and recommend them to all who love good reading material.
3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 1, 2011
The effort the author went to in writing The Stranger's Child is enormous, or so it appears to me. He has created a story that transcends lives, and characters who are not stick figures commonly seen in fiction. Yet his efforts result in a book that is at times difficult to enjoy. The stuffy British upper class are not always interesting. But the look at the times, and how gays were portrayed (or not) is indeed fascinating.
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