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The Stranger's Child

by Alan Hollinghurst

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The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
© Knopf
Knopf, October 2011

At the time, nobody expected Cecil Valance's poem, "Two Acres," to be his literary legacy. Written in the early 1900s during a visit to the Sawle's eponymous estate, "Two Acres" is a pastoral enigma, a poem that brilliantly renders the post-Victorian, pre-war uncertainty of British society. But before "Two Acres" was ever anthologized, the poem defined the Sawles; Daphne, sixteen, cherished the piece as a love letter and gave careful, flirtatious consideration to the fact that Cecil originally wrote the poem out in her very own autograph book. Daphne's mother felt the poem aggrandized their estate and considered it with a matriarch's pride. George, Daphne's older brother and Cecil's classmate at Oxford, was more interested in the poem's analysis. Could "Two Acres" hint at his tryst with Cecil? Was Cecil referring to their clandestine affair in the lines "And in their shadows lovers too / Might kiss and tell their secrets through"?
Alan Hollinghurst's (The Line of Beauty) exceptionally good novel The Stranger's Child opens with Cecil's historic visit to Two Acres, and in merely a hundred pages Hollinghurst manages to lay the foundation of what could potentially grow into a rapturous novel of familial and sexual tension in turn-of-the-century England. But, instead of directly exploring these themes, Hollinghurst jumps his novel forward in time at a dizzying pace. An entire generation passes between the first and second sections of The Stranger's Child, and before his readers can get fully acclimated to this shift Hollinghurst bombards his plot with unforeseen developments. Cecil now lies entombed at the Valance estate, laid to rest as both a celebrated poet and a war hero. Daphne is married to Cecil's brother, Dudley, and together they've invited friends and relatives to celebrate Cecil's short, rich life. An old acquaintance is writing a memoir on Cecil and the Valances hope their gathering will further memorialize their families in England's poetic history. Details on Cecil's private life are exhumed, and, as tensions rise, Hollinghurst draws the curtain as abruptly as it was opened.
And once again, the novel jumps forward a generation. New children appear and marriages vanish without mention; we watch these characters age as if viewing an incomplete slideshow. New protagonists delve into Cecil's legacy from unexpected angles, and new limbs are grown and sawn from the Valance family tree. In fact, that Valance/Sawle line grows so knotted that's it's hardly worth the trouble to keep up ("Daphne's second husband's half-sister married my father's elder brother," a new character explains). As the novel expands, sprinting through the sixties and seventies towards present-day England, Hollinghurst loses sight of the rhapsodic novel he began with and, with a new cast of equally captivating characters, begins a different sort of story.

Also evolving, although at a different pace, is sexuality and its interplay with society. In the novel's opening scenes, Cecil is portrayed in such a multifaceted way that his gender-preference seems entirely beside the point: his sexual liberation works closely with his hunger for power and attention and it's exciting to watch him revel in his appeal to both Daphne and her brother. To call him "bisexual" would eclipse his character's complexity. Yet, later in the novel, as homosexuality grows more accepted, Hollinghurst shifts this focus into a more needling "is-he-or-isn't-he" kind of discussion.
While the new, mid-twentieth century characters Hollinghurst introduces are as beautifully rendered as the Valance and Sawle families, it's less interesting to follow these people knowing that they're so burdened by mysterious Cecil and his many secrets. Those readers who adored the nuances of the early, more Victorian portions of The Stranger's Child will be less than pleased to find out where the novel ends up.

What begins as a stunning novel full of richly painted characters with seemingly limitless depths turns into a book not about these people's lives but about their lifestyles. It's interesting to see Hollinghurst's focus narrow as time jumps towards the present, as much of today's society is obsessed with sexuality. But, perhaps this focus is taken too far and narrowed at the expense of Hollinghurst's exquisite prose. By working with such unconventional structuring, it becomes apparent that The Stranger's Child is working towards a grand, multi-generational statement, but much of the reasoning behind his decisions seems fueled by fairly simplistic themes. Hollinghurst's interest in homosexuality is very important to see on bookshelves, but The Stranger's Child begins to feel like what happens when a stunningly good novel trades a rich story for social criticism.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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