The Stranger's Child
Alan Hollinghurst
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Buy *The Stranger's Child* by Alan Hollinghurst online

The Stranger's Child
Alan Hollinghurst
448 pages
October 2011
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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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. Two families are linked across the generations by Cecil Valance, a cause celebre and “minor English poet” who becomes something of sensation when he writes “Two Acres,” an ode to George and Daphne Sawle’s sweet, bourgeois Victorian home in Stanmore Hill, North London.

Cecil is destined to leave impressionable siblings Daphne and George quaking in his wake. Both are enamored with the poet's wavy dark hair, oiled almost flat, and his playful eyes, his propensity for drinking and partying. Clearly Cecil is a virile man who acts out his passions to the fullest. George is most attracted. Their secret affair began at Cambridge and continues on throughout three summery days when Cecil comes to stay at Stanmore Hill soon after a visit to his lover’s home, the rambling ancestral Corley Court.

Feeling the chill of his own "act of daring" at bringing this man into his mother’s house, George's whole spine prickles “under the sweeping secret promise.” The fact that George still harbors Victorian class pretensions that define English society pre-World War I does little to blunt his feelings of lust for the handsome poet. At least Freda Sawle thinks it’s good for her son to have “a friend,” even when relations such as these should be probably kept as discreet as possible.

Amid the sporting sense of solidarity and the comfortable stink of cigars, Corley Court is the place that seems to call Cecil’s poems forth. There’s a sense of reckless disorder as Cecil chants his words like a priest in literary soirees and drunken gatherings. Each day brings Hollinghurst’s characters closer to the German war and "a sort of dense crossing out," as if not only Cecil’s words but his very ideas had to be obliterated.

The novel is detailed and tender, evoking a nostalgia for a lost time as Hollinghurst stewards us through a gay cultural history of England from post-World War I, when Daphne is living at Corley Court and unhappily married to Cecil’s brother, Dudley, the War having left him “unhinged and quite beastly.” Soon enough, Corley is transformed into a school for boys, its most famous feature—the white marble tomb of Cecil Valance—a catalyst for school teacher Peter Rowe and his sly seduction of bank clerk Paul Bryant, who quotes "darling Cecil’s poetry" and comes to play a pivotal role in the ensuing chapters.

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. The novel is chiefly about those trying to come to grips with the conflict between desire and society's expectations. In 1967, Peter and Paul are determined to stride through an unsure realm of sexual gratification, while Corley’s headmaster is unwavering in his bid to rid the school of anything that would intimate a “hint of disgust.”

As Paul goes on to pen his duplicitous biography of Cecil, we see the slow, gaunt deterioration of characters—especially Daphne, who has seen two wars and, in a strange, ironic and posthumous way, has had a legendary poem written about her. Waxing lyrical about her nostalgic pastoral days, Daphne hankers only to be left alone with her secrets, desiring to keep Cecil’s “smut” to herself. It's not just Daphne who remembers Cecil’s now nearly legendary intimacies: various other stakeholders come forward with secrets of their own in a tale where information is a form of property, and those who have it protect it and enhance its value by hints and withholdings.

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 footnotes. Showcasing academic pages dog-eared by the march of time, The Stranger's Child displays the defeated dramas of two families as much as it demonstrates the enduring legacy of a poet’s life and his work.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2011

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