The Washington Post
The Stranger's Childby Alan Hollinghurst
The Stranger’s Child is Alan Hollinghurst’s masterpiece, the book that cements his position as one of the finest novelists of our time. In its scope, intelligence and elegance.
Sixteen-year-old Daphne Sawle is reading Tennyson in a hammock in the garden of Two Acres, the family home in suburban London. Her brother George/b>/b>
The Stranger’s Child is Alan Hollinghurst’s masterpiece, the book that cements his position as one of the finest novelists of our time. In its scope, intelligence and elegance.
Sixteen-year-old Daphne Sawle is reading Tennyson in a hammock in the garden of Two Acres, the family home in suburban London. Her brother George arrives to visit with his Cambridge friend Cecil Valance, a handsome, assured and sometimes outrageous young man with a burgeoning reputation as a poet. After a tantalizing and dramatic weekend Cecil writes a long poem in Daphne’s autograph album as a parting gift. It is titled “Two Acres,” and both Daphne and George (whose feelings for Cecil also go well beyond mere friendship) immediately see how important the poem is – but none of them can foresee the complex and lasting effects it will have on all their lives.
When the next section of the novel begins, everything has changed: Daphne is married to Cecil’s brother Dudley Valance; George to a historian named Madeleine; and Cecil is dead, killed by a sniper in World War One. A Cabinet officer and man of letters named Sebastian Stokes is compiling an edition of Cecil’s poems. He is especially curious about Cecil’s personal (and passionate) letters and unpublished poems, papers that seem to have gone missing.
The book leaps forward to a party to celebrate Daphne’s seventieth birthday. We meet Peter Rowe, a music teacher, and his boyfriend, Paul Bryant, a bank employee with a feeling for Cecil’s poetry. Soon Paul is taking up an idea that Peter abandoned: to write a biography of Cecil Valance. It means making some startling discoveries about a past that the Valance family would prefer to keep in sepia and shadows.
The Stranger’s Child is that rare thing, a historical novel whose characters, in their passions and betrayals, constantly surprise the reader, and will surely be read for generations to come.
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The New York Times Book Review
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 Valancethat'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 historyand still less about gay desire; compared to The Swimming-Pool Library, the author's hothouse of a first novel, this new book is decidedly chastethan 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
“Remarkable. . . . Daring. . . . Fresh and vital.”
—Thomas Mallon, The New York Times Book Review
“Hollinghurst is a master storyteller. . . . 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
“At once classically literary and delightfully, subversively modern. . . . It’s a thrilling, enchanting work of art.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Brilliant. . . . Hollinghurst [has] a truly Jamesian fineness of perception. . . . [He is] one of the best novelists at work today.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“A sly and ravishing masterpiece.”
—Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Magnificent. . . . Hollinghurst explores how a living, breathing existence can become a biographical subject riddled with omissions and distortions. . . . 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.”
—The Seattle Times
“Hollinghurst 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.”
—The Washington Post
“Vibrant. . . . Sparkling. . . . Witty and ultimately very moving. . . . 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.”
“Masterful. . . . Psychologically penetrating. . . . 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.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“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.”
—The Times Literary Supplement
“Hollinghurst 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.”
“Erudite, stylish, very amusing. . . . 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 imaginatively insists that our literary tradition would be unrecognizably depleted without the submerged current of homosexuality. . . . The Stranger’s Child itself is the culmination of not only Hollinghurst’s ambition but that secret literary tradition to which it is addressed.”
—Geoff Dyer, New York Magazine
“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.”
Read an Excerpt
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.
From the Hardcover edition.
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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.
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 . . .
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.
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.
Very well written
I think I read this story before...The House at Riverton by Kate Morton.
I h hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhate this book becase its stupid anb thatZ y i hate it