Carly Thompson's Reviews > The Stranger's Child

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
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's review
Apr 04, 2011

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bookshelves: 2011, anglophilia, historical-fiction
Read from November 12 to 25, 2011

** spoiler alert ** A very long book about family stories, biography, and poetry. The novel opens in 1913, when the young poet Cecil Valance visits Two Acres, the suburban home of his Cambridge friend (and lover) George Sawle, and his mother, older brother Hubert, and young sister, Daphne. 16 year old Daphne is quite taken with Cecil and is blind to the true relationship between Cecil and George. Before Cecil leaves, he writes a poem in Daphne's autograph book which will later become famous. The second section of the book takes place in 1926 at Corley Court, Cecil's family home. Cecil has died in WWI and Daphne has married Cecil's younger brother, Dudley. The action of the second part centers around a party Daphne and Cecil hold and the presence of the a famous writer/political figure who is gathering material for a book about Cecil. The third section moves even further into the future. It is now 1967, and two new characters are introduced--Paul Bryant, a bank clerk, and Peter Sawle, a school teacher at a private boys' school in the former Corley Court. The two young men meet and begin an affair at a birthday party for the now 70 year old Daphne. The fourth section is set in 1979/1980 when Paul visits the elderly characters who knew Cecil before his death (George, Daphne, a servant of the Sawles) in his quest to gather information about Cecil's homosexuality and the truth of events from years ago. The final section occurs in 2008 at a memorial service for Peter Sawle the the ignition of interest in Cecil Valance by a new character, Rob a rare book dealer.

This was a lengthy and at times an exhausting book. It took me a great deal of time to read it--Hollinghurst's prose is very descriptive and requires a great deal of concentration. Over a span of nearly 100 years, the author shows how attitudes towards homosexuality have changed, how the past is interpreted according to the social conventions of the time and the political agenda of the people involved, and the increasingly fluidity of social class in England. I enjoyed parts of the novel but was never very emotionally engaged with the characters or cared very much about what happened to any of them. I liked the first part of the novel--that time period is one of my favorites and there seemed to be very clear echo of E.M. Forster and Evelyn Waugh.

I found it interesting that such a dense novel with literary concerns (the reputation of a minor poet) became a #1 Best Seller in England (as mentioned on the dust jacket).

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