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[505] The Stranger’s Child – Alan Hollinghurst

” It was true of course that the lyric of grief was often attended, of followed soon after, by a more prosaic little compulsion, the unseemly grasp of the chance to tell the truth—and since the person involved could no longer mind . . . There was a special tone of indulgent candour, amusing putting-straight of the record, that wandered all too easily and invisibly into settling of scores and something a bit shy of objective life. ” (Part 5, Ch.1, p.412)

Alan Hollinghurst’s first novel in seven years since The Line of Beauty is about the life and legacy of a gay war poet, a minor one who enters into common consciousness more deeply than many great masters. The book, which consists of five parts and each occupies a different era over 90 years, shows how truth is compromised by the erasures of remembrance and history. The Stranger’s Child deals with the short but dramatic life and posthumous reputation of Cecil Valance, a Georgian poet whose lyrical outpourings are given huge poignancy by the carnage of the trenches.

Freda Sawle did say that Cecil had made a terrible mess in his room, and it had sounded petty of her, to say such a thing of a poet and a hero who had won the Military Cross. She alluded, in addition, to his ‘liveliness’ and the various things he had broken—widow’s mites, again, pathetic grievances. What she couldn’t begin to say was the mess Cecil Valance had made of her children. (Part 2, Ch.7, p.144)

In the summer of 1913, George Sawle brings Cecil Valance, a classmate from Cambridge with an aristocratic root, to his family’s home outside London. Cecil has an atmosphere and appeal of the unmentionable lust. The socially confident lad soon mesmerizes the entire family, including the servant who attends to him. he is George’s lover but soon after his arrival in Two Acres, George’s sister, Daphne, is equally besotted. She longs to be in Cecil’s company, but wanders off with George to the privacy of the wood. Hints of their fumblings become known to George’s mother when a bundle of letters arrive. The attraction between George and Cecil is amplified by its illegality in a way that makes it more powerful. The entire novel, as it unfolds over the next 90 years, hinges on that one weekend when Cecil Valance visits Two Acres and composes, for Daphne, on whom he takes a shine on, a poem that, after he is killed in the Great War, elevates him to fame.

Daphne always fell for different men who couldn’t love her properly—they couldn’t give her what she wanted. (Part 4, Ch.7, p.355)
Paul pictured George with the half-naked Cecil on the roof at Corley, and smiled distantly, at a loss as to how much of this she believed or expected him to believe; and to how much she might quite willingly have forgotten. (Part 4, Ch.8, p.370)

The Stranger’s Child is elegant, erudite, but also difficult and demanding. As Cecil’s slim reputation is fought over by scholars, ex-lovers, and a mother who makes a cult of him, an ambitious biographer emerges to unearth a tragic story that is spun over time, and its truth is known only to mother, daughter and son behind the door at Two Acres. The mysteries of the story focuses instead on the delusions of people around him. The true contours of lives—how they were truly experienced, disappears into haze. Daphne’s three marriages also render the paternity of her children mysterious. Hollinghurst recreates the life of Cecil through reminiscences of family and friends. He leaves readers to fill the vague well-intentioned space between those spoken memories and imaginings of them. I find his writing on buried homosexuality very repressed; and the book gets flatter as it paces steadily toward its revelations.

435 pp. Vintage International. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

6 Responses

  1. The issue of homosexuality has so much been repressed and hidden. This books promises to indulge the reader. Thanks for sharing.

    • Hollinghurst keeps homosexuality issue at bay throughout the book to show how repressed it is. It’s a difficult book to navigate through but well worth the time.

  2. Matt: love your blog!

    Did you find that The Stranger’s Child captured the human condition well? Did it reveal truths about human experience?

    • While we lose parts of our memories as we age, we also deliberately consign them to the dark hole of our mind. In this regard Alan Hollinghurst shows how we inflate the importance of what we value while also erase what we deem shameful.

  3. […] The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst has been the most anticipated read for me this year. It’s the first novel by the Booker Prize-winning author in 7 years since my beloved The Line of Beauty. The novel is elegant, erudite, but also difficult and demanding. It deals with the nebulous visit of a Cambridge student/poet’s visit to his friend’s house over the weekend some 80 years ago. As the poet’s slim reputation is fought over by scholars, ex-lovers, and a mother who makes a cult of him, an ambitious biographer emerges to unearth a tragic story that is spun over time, and its truth is known only to mother, daughter and son behind the door at Two Acres. The mysteries of the story focuses instead on the delusions of people around him. The true contours of lives—–how they were truly experienced, disappears into haze. It doesn’t follow a straight-forward plot so readers can be divided about this one for sure. […]

  4. […] reads for the year didn’t live up to my expectations: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, and Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks. All three are revered authors whom […]

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