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, The Stranger’s Child can be placed in the great tradition of the novel alongside epics by Marcel Proust and Anthony Powell. And yet, in its subtly political exploration of homosexuality in English society, it deals with an utterly contemporary subject in an utterly contemporary way.
The Stranger’s Child begins with sixteen-year-old Daphne Sawle sitting in a hammock in the garden of Two Acres, the family home in suburban London. She is making a show of reading Tennyson before 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 has come to Corley Court, the Valance family’s country home, to put together an edition of Cecil’s poems and speak to each family member in turn about him. He is especially curious about Cecil’s personal (and passionate) letters and unpublished poems, papers that seem to have gone missing, and whose absence will loom paradoxically through the rest of the novel.
The book leaps forward and we are at another party, this one to celebrate Daphne’s seventieth birthday. George is now the acclaimed historian G.F. Sawle; Daphne’s son Wilfrid, a charming boy in the previous section, has grown into a nervous and somehow fractured adult. We meet Peter Rowe, a music teacher at the boarding school that now occupies Corley Court, 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 by turns a gripping literary mystery, an absorbing social study of some pivotal moments in history, and a sensuous and beautiful exploration of the secret passions that determine our lives. From Edwardian suburbs to the offices of the Times Literary Supplement in the 1970s, from High Table wit to the realities of life working behind the counter at a provincial bank, it seems there is no corner of English life that Alan Hollinghurst cannot make present and palpable. Throughout this book he displays his unmatched gift for creating characters who live and breathe, and makes The Stranger’s Child that rare thing, a historical novel whose characters, in their passions and betrayals, constantly surprise the reader. In telling the story of the Valances, Hollinghurst casts a clear eye on the ways that each new generation tries to keep the family’s secrets buried – and reminds us that outsiders who try to dredge secrets to the surface have their own very mixed reasons for doing so.
Reading this book, we are so utterly immersed in its characters’ lives that their memories come to seem like our own, at once vital and in the process of being lost. And perhaps this is the novel’s most extraordinary quality: the way it gives us events as they happen, and then shows them being transformed in the memory, and transformed again as they are documented, for good and ill. The Stranger’s Child is an astonishingly sensitive and perceptive novel, and one that will itself surely be read for generations to come.
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Alan Hollinghurst is the author of The Swimming-Pool Library, The Folding Star, The Spell and the Man Booker Prize–winning, NBCC Award finalist The Line of Beauty. He has received the Somerset Maugham Award, the E.M. Forster Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. He lives in London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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.
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