A National Book Critics Award finalist from the Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Line of Beauty and The Sparsholt Affair: a magnificent, century-spanning saga about a love triangle that spawns a myth, and a family mystery, across generations.
In the summer of 1913, George Sawle brings his Cambridge schoolmate—a handsome, aristocratic young poet named Cecil Valance—to his family’s home outside London. George is enthralled by Cecil, and soon his sister, Daphne, is equally besotted by him. That weekend, Cecil writes a poem that, after he is killed in the Great War and his reputation burnished, will become a touchstone for a generation, a work recited by every schoolchild in England. Over time, a tragic love story is spun, even as other secrets lie buried—until, decades later, an ambitious biographer threatens to unearth them.
About the Author
ALAN HOLLINGHURST is the author of the novels The Stranger's Child, The Swimming-Pool Library, The Folding Star, The Spell, and The Line of Beauty, which won the Man Booker Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. 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.
Read an Excerpt
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.
While the maid was removing the tea-things, Freda Sawle stood up and wandered between the small tables and numerous little armchairs to the open window. A few high streaks of cloud glowed pink above the rockery, and the garden itself was stilled in the first grey of the twilight. It was a time of day that played uncomfortably on her feelings. “I suppose my child is straining her eyes out there somewhere,” she said, turning back to the warmer light of the room.
“If she has her poetry books,” said Clara Kalbeck.
“She’s been studying some of Cecil Valance’s poems. She says they are very fine, but not so good as Swinburne or Lord Tennyson.”
“Swinburne . . . ,” said Mrs. Kalbeck, with a wary chuckle.
“All the poems of Cecil’s that I’ve seen have been about his own house. Though George says he has others, of more general interest.”
“I feel I know a good deal about Cecil Valance’s house,” said Clara, with the slight asperity that gave even her nicest remarks an air of sarcasm.
Freda paced the short distance to the musical end of the room, the embrasure with the piano and the dark cabinet of the gramophone. George himself had turned rather critical of “Two Acres” since his visit to Corley Court. He said it had a way of “resolving itself into nooks.” This nook had its own little window, and was spanned by a broad oak beam.
“They’re very late,” said Freda, “though George says Cecil is hopeless about time.”
Clara looked tolerantly at the clock on the mantelpiece. “I think perhaps they are rambling around.”
“Oh, who knows what George is doing with him!” said Freda, and frowned at her own sharp tone.
“He may have lost his connection at Harrow and Wealdstone,” said Clara.
“Quite so,” said Freda; and for a moment the two names, with the pinched vowels, the throaty r, the blurred W that was almost an F, struck her as a tiny emblem of her friend’s claim on England, and Stanmore, and her. She stopped to make adjustments to the framed photographs that stood in an expectant half-circle on a small round table. Dear Frank, in a studio setting, with his hand on another small round table. Hubert in a rowing-boat and George on a pony. She pushed the two of them apart, to give Daphne more prominence. Often she was glad of Clara’s company, and her unselfconscious willingness to sit, for long hours at a time. She was no less good a friend for being a pitiful one. Freda had three children, the telephone, and an upstairs bathroom; Clara had none of these amenities, and it was hard to begrudge her when she laboured up the hill from damp little “Lorelei” in search of talk. Tonight, though, with dinner raising tensions in the kitchen, her staying-put showed a certain insensitivity.
“One can see George is so happy to be having his friend,” said Clara.
“I know,” said Freda, sitting down again with a sudden return of patience. “And of course I’m happy too. Before, he never seemed to have anybody.”
“Perhaps losing a father made him shy,” said Clara. “He wanted only to be with you.”
“Mm, you may be right,” said Freda, piqued by Clara’s wisdom, and touched at the same time by the thought of George’s devotion. “But he’s certainly changing now. I can see it in his walk. And he whistles a great deal, which usually shows that a man’s looking forward to something . . .Of course he loves Cambridge. He loves the life of ideas.” She saw the paths across and around the courts of the colleges as ideas, with the young men following them, through archways, and up staircases. Beyond were the gardens and river-banks, the hazy dazzle of social freedom, where George and his friends stretched out on the grass, or slipped by in punts. She said cautiously, “You know he has been elected to the Conversazione Society.”
“Indeed . . . ,” said Clara, with a vague shake of the head.
“We’re not allowed to know about it. But it’s philosophy, I think. Cecil Valance got him into it. They discuss ideas. I think George said they discuss ‘Does this hearth-rug exist?’ That kind of thing.”
“The big questions,” said Clara.
Freda laughed guiltily and said, “I understand it’s a great honour to be a member.”
“And Cecil is older than George,” said Clara.
“I believe two or three years older, and already quite an expert on some aspect of the Indian Mutiny. Apparently he hopes to be a Fellow of the college.”
“He is offering to help George.”
“Well, I think they’re great friends!”
Clara let a moment pass. “Whatever the reason,” she said, “George is blooming.”
Freda smiled firmly, as she took up her friend’s idea. “I know,” she said. “He’s coming into bloom, at last!” The image was both beautiful and vaguely unsettling. Then Daphne was sticking her head through the window and shouting,
“They’re here!”—sounding furious with them for not knowing.
“Ah, good,” said her mother, standing up again.
“Not a moment too soon,” said Clara Kalbeck, with a dry laugh, as if her own patience had been tried by the wait.
Daphne glanced quickly over her shoulder, before saying, “He’s extremely charming, you know, but he has a rather carrying voice.”
“And so have you, my dear,” said Freda. “Now do go and bring him in.”
“I shall depart,” said Clara, quietly and gravely.
“Oh, nonsense,” said Freda, surrendering as she had suspected she would, and getting up and going into the hall. As it happened Hubert had just got home from work, and was standing at the front door in his bowler hat, almost throwing two brown suitcases into the house. He said,
“I brought these up with me in the van.”
“Oh, they must be Cecil’s,” said Freda. “Yes, ‘C. T. V.,’ look. Do be careful . . .” Her elder son was a well-built boy, with a surprisingly ruddy moustache, but she saw in a moment, in the light of her latest conversation, that he hadn’t yet bloomed, and would surely be completely bald before he had had the chance. She said, “And a most intriguing packet has come for you. Good evening, Hubert.”
“Good evening, Mother,” said Hubert, leaning over the cases to kiss her on the cheek. It was the little dry comedy of their relations, which somehow turned on the fact that Hubert wasn’t lightly amused, perhaps didn’t even know there was anything comic about them. “Is this it?” he said, picking up a small parcel wrapped in shiny red paper. “It looks more like a lady’s thing.”
“Well, so I had hoped,” said his mother, “it’s from Mappin’s—,” as behind her, where the garden door had stood open all day, the others were arriving: waiting a minute outside, in the soft light that spread across the path, George and Cecil arm in arm, gleaming against the dusk, and Daphne just behind, wide-eyed, with a part in the drama, the person who had found them. Freda had a momentary sense of Cecil leading George, rather than George presenting his friend; and Cecil himself, crossing the threshold in his pale linen clothes, with only his hat in his hand, seemed strangely unencumbered. He might have been coming in from his own garden.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel—his follow-up to 2004’s Man Booker Prize–winning The Line of Beauty.
1. Much of The Stranger’s Child concerns attempts to get at the truth of Cecil Valance. What does the novel as a whole say about our ability to truly know another person? In what ways does it illustrate the limits of our knowing? Do we as readers of the novel know Cecil more accurately than George, Daphne, Dudley—even Sebastian Stokes? What about Paul Bryant?
2. What role does keeping secrets play in the The Stranger’s Child? Why do so many characters feel compelled to lead secret lives?
3. Several characters are said to have had “a bad war,” suffering from what would now be described as post traumatic stress disorder. How has the war affected Dudley Valance and Leslie Keeping in particular? In what ways does World War I cast a shadow over the entire novel?
4. Before her interview with Sebby Stokes for the memoir he’s writing about Cecil, Daphne thinks: “What she felt then; and what she felt now; and what she felt now about what she felt then: it wasn’t remotely easy to say” [p. 141]. Later in the novel, frustrated with Paul’s interview for his biography of the poet, Daphne muses: “He was asking for memories, too young himself to know that memories were only memories of memories” [p. 382]. In what ways does the novel suggest that memory, of both facts and feelings, is an extremely unreliable method of recovering the truth?
5. What is suggested by the divergent attitudes expressed in the novel toward Victorianism, especially as it is embodied in Corley Court? Why does Dudley detest the house so violently? What is the effect of Mrs. Riley’s modernist makeover?
6. How do English attitudes toward homosexuality change over the period the novel covers, from 1913 to 2008? Why is it important, in terms of Cecil Valance’s biography, that the true nature of his sexuality, and the true recipient of his famous poem “Two Acres,” be revealed?
7. What other important generational changes in English life does the novel trace?
8. The Stranger’s Child is, among many other things, a wonderfully comic novel. What are some of its funniest moments and most amusing observations?
9. Cecil Valance is a purely fictional character—though he resembles the World War I poet Rupert Brooke—but he inhabits a milieu in the novel that includes real people: literary scholars Jon Stallworthy and Paul Fussell appear at a party, John Betjeman attends a rally to save St. Pancras Station, and Cecil is said to have known Lytton Strachey and other members of the Bloomsbury group. What is the effect of this mixing of real and fictional characters?
10. Near the end of the novel, Jennifer Keeping tells Rob that Paul Bryant’s story of his father’s heroic death in World War II is a fiction, that in fact Paul was a bastard. For Rob, this revelation makes Paul “if anything more intriguing and sympathetic” [p. 422]. Do you agree with Rob—is Paul a sympathetic character? How does Paul’s own secret past shed light on his motivations and tactics as a biographer?
11. In what ways does A Stranger’s Child critique English manners and morals? In what ways might it be said to celebrate them—if at all?
12. The novel is filled with remarkable subtleties of perception. After Cecil leaves “Two Acres,” Daphne thinks: “Of course he had gone! There was a thinness in the air that told her, in the tone of the morning, the texture of the servants’ movements and fragments of talk” [p. 75]. Where else does this kind of finely attuned awareness appear in the novel? What do such descriptions add to the experience of reading of The Stranger’s Child?
13. The novel opens with George, Daphne, and Cecil reciting Tennyson’s poetry on the lawn of “Two Acres” and ends with Rob viewing a video clip of a digitally animated photograph (on the website Poets Alive! Houndvoice.com) that makes it appear as if Tennyson is reading his poetry [p. 424]. What is Hollinghurst suggesting by bookending his novel in this way?
14. What does the novel say about how literary reputations are created, preserved, revised?
15. Why do you think Hollinghurst ends the novel with Rob’s unsuccessful attempt to recover Cecil’s letters to Hewitt before they go up in smoke? Is this conclusion satisfying, or appropriately open-ended?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Stranger's Child follows two British families, the Vances and the Sawles, from before WWI to the present. Both families were in the British upper class, with the Vances a bit higher, having a title. The sons of the families, Cecil and George, become friends at college, and the book begins with Cecil Vance's visit to George Sawle's family home on a weekend. Daphne, George's teenage sister, is infatuated with Cecil, too innocent to understand that the young men are sexually involved with each other. Cecil, a budding poet, dashes off a poem in Daphne's autograph book before he leaves. This poem becomes his most famous, and the one by which he is forever known. The next section occurs after the war. Daphne is now Lady Vance, but is not married to Cecil. Cecil is killed in the war, and Daphne has married his brother Dudley. George is now married and teaching. The section follows their married years and their friends and acquaintances. They are part of an artistic circle with poets, authors and artists. Fast forward a generation. The Vance family home has now become a boy's school, and Peter Rowe is a schoolmaster there. He begins an affair with Paul Bryant, who works as a bank teller in Daphne's son-in-law's bank. The circle of connection moves forward with Peter being invited to play duets with Daphne's daughter, Corrine, at gatherings at their home. Another generation. Now Paul has become an author, specifically a biographer. He trades on his acquaintance with the Vance and Sawle families to ferret out their secrets and create a best-seller. George became the author, with his wife, of a famous historical textbook that became the milestone of every British child's education. Daphne spends her old age living with her son, who guards her jealously. Alan Hollinghurst has created a fascinating book that looks at an era in British history where there were only a limited number of people who 'counted' and they all knew each other in some way, or had some tangential relationship or acquaintance that brought them into the charmed circle. He also plays with the idea of memory, how we are remembered when we are no longer here, and whether memories are ever true or are instead tinged and shaped by what we want to have happened. Families rise and fall, fortunes and titles come and go. The sections are tied together interestingly, with minor characters tieing back in unexpected ways to the two main families. This book has been nominated for the Mann Booker Prize in 2011, and is a well-deserved nomination.
The story and characters were interesting and they are what propelled me to finish this book, but it was not an easy thing to do. I can't put my finger on why, but The Stranger's Child was a very difficult book to read. I could only do it in short bursts as a very little goes a long way with this one. I can't decide if I enjoyed it or not. Mmmmmm . . .
The effort the author went to in writing The Stranger's Child is enormous, or so it appears to me. He has created a story that transcends lives, and characters who are not stick figures commonly seen in fiction. Yet his efforts result in a book that is at times difficult to enjoy. The stuffy British upper class are not always interesting. But the look at the times, and how gays were portrayed (or not) is indeed fascinating.
I truly enjoyed this book, the tale was colorfully written, and the characters jumped out at you. I loved coming home after a long day at work, and relaxing after dinner with this book. Phenomenal Author! I also loved THE CHATEAU by C D Swanson. A fantastic tale of intrique, and flamboyant and loving characters that all blend well together. The MC was awesome, and the adventure and shocking twists and turns, made me truly understand the meaning of "page turner!" Love both books and recommend them to all who love good reading material.
*spoiler free as much as possible*This beautifully written novel is a family saga, but so much more. It starts in 1913 with 16 year old Daphne Sawle lying in a hammock excitedly waiting for her brother George and his friend Cecil to come home for a long weekend. Home is "Two Acres" near London, where Daphne lives with her widowed mother Freda, her older brother Hubert, and George (when he's not at Cambridge). The book spans almost a century and we get to track the family members and their relations to one another in detail. There is also lots in here about how attitudes to World War 1 have changed, the Bloomsbury group and the war poets, how family myths get built up, and most of all, and not surprisingly because it's Alan Hollinghurst, how being gay in England has changed.The Sawles are comfortably off, but not rich. They're acutely aware that Cecil comes from a much posher family, the Valances, and spend a fair bit of the weekend worrying about diong things right. For example, Jonah, one of their general house servants, is assigned to be Cecil's valet for the weekend, and has no clue what to do but pretends he does. George is infatuated with Cecil, whose strong personality comes through the whole novel. George worries about his mother and sister letting slip just how much detail he's told them about Cecil and his family. Lots happens during the weekend. (I said spoiler free!!) It felt like a rewritten version of Brideshead Revisited near the start, only backwards - the rich boy comes into the poorer family home.There are 5 or 6 parts to the book, and 15-20 years between parts. Figuring out what was going on at the start of every new part was great fun. I don't think it's giving much away to say that by the end of the book Cecil, George, Daphne, Hubert and the rest of the family have all died, and we're left with the myths surrounding their lives and the impact they have had on several generation.I loved this book and really hope it wins the Booker this year. Comparing it to other Booker winners that I've read, it's much better than The Finkler Question, not as good as Wolf Hall or The Remains of the Day but I am still happy giving it 5 stars. This is only half a review because I don't want to spoil it in case you go on to read it. I am dying to tell somebody how irritating I found one particular character but I will wait a few weeks!
I'm a big fan of Alan Hollinghurst's work, having read all of his novels (and I have two signed copies!) I've been looking forward to reading "The Stranger's Child" even since I first heard of it. The action spans more than an century of English literature and history, from 1913 to 2008, and deals with an assortment of writers (and their relatives) in their response to the life and work of "Cecil Valance," an ambigiously talented poet closely modeled on the example of Rupert Brooke."A Stranger's Child" is book with rich variety of characters - too many? - that is more about other books than it is about those actual characters. The main subjects of Hollinghurst's novel are poetry, gay male love, and the opaque nature of desire - but it's never clear if the poetry is worth reading; the gay male love is mostly talk, with little physicality; and if you really want to read about the opaque nature of desire, you would be better off reading Proust - or Henry James for that matter. (Similarly, the "errant biographer" trope has already been handled by a number of authors, A.S. Byatt for example.) Yes, Hollinghurst writes beautifully, and I occasionally smiled at a character's wry comment or a particularly bitchy put-down. But the five sections of the book seem like disconnected nodules to me, and I often felt bored by the flow of the writing. I didn't feel that this was a particularly compelling or interesting "story". Almost "much ado about nothing"! This reads like a novel composed by the editor of the "Times Literary Supplement." Incidentally, Hollinghurst took the title of his novel from words that appear in Alfred Tennyson's poetic elegy for friendship, youth, and Englishness, "In Memoriam," which he wrote in response to the early death of Arthur Hallam, his closest boyhood friend: Unwatch'd, the garden bough shall sway, The tender blossom flutter down; Unloved, that beech will gather brown, This maple burn itself away; Unloved, the sunflower, shining fair, Ray round with flames her disk of seed, And many a rose-carnation feed With summer spice the humming air; Unloved, by many a sandy bar, The brook shall babble down the plain, At noon or when the lesser wain Is twisting round the polar star; Uncared for, gird the windy grove, And flood the haunts of hern and crake; Or into silver arrows break The sailing moon in creek and cove; Till from the garden and the wild A fresh association blow, And year by year the landscape grow Familiar to the stranger's child; As year by year the labourer tills His wonted glebe, or lops the glades; And year by year our memory fades From all the circle of the hills.
What a sumptuous feast. We move in this book through five distinct periods of time with the work and life of a second-rate fictional poet Cecil Valance running through as the thread that links them together. As ever Hollinghurst's writing is superb and makes you stop and re-read sentences simply to savour his skill. However, this books is very different from his earlier work with far less sex and far more dialogue. The storyline also seems much more complex and has elements of the thriller running through it - will they find they lost letters or missing parts of the poem?I loved the Forster-esque opening section and in my mind the "Two Acres" of this book became synonymous with "Windy Corner" the home of the Honeychurch family where they are visited by another Cecil who also rather looks down on their suburban home. The third section which introduces to us Paul Bryant the young provincial bank clerk soon to be Cecil's biographer is also very enjoyable but I confess that I found the fourth section where Bryant is writing his book about Cecil V rather tedious. The reader already knows most of the secrets but we have to watch on the sidelines as Bryant is frustrated at nearly every turn from finding out the truth.As ever Hollinghurst creates very real, complex characters complete with all the conflicting positive and negative aspects you'd expect from real humanity. There are no heroes and you come away liking characters while suspecting their motives and understanding their behaviour while wishing it were otherwise.
This is yet another lyrical book from Hollinghurst. He is particularly good at representing the allure of closed circles to outsiders. Those circles can be social, as we see in the third part of this book, when middle-class Paul finds himself in the charmed circle of Mrs Jacobs and her family. They can also be circles of friendship or love, like the relationship between Cecil and George at the beginning of the book, of which innocent Daphne wants so much to be a part. Hollinghurst's broader theme here is the persistence of memory. He explores the way that the past can overpower the present and drain life of its savour; the relationship of biographer to biographee; and the efforts to which people go, to ensure that their view becomes the canonical view.It all centres on Cecil Valance, a talented young poet who spends a few days in 1916 staying with George Sawle, a university friend. Flirting harmlessly with his friend's sister Daphne (while simultaneously carrying on a much more serious flirtation with George), Cecil writes a long poem in her autograph book. When he is killed in action in the First World War, his family promotes and celebrates his talent. The poem in Daphne's book is published and becomes recognised as his greatest work; and Daphne herself gradually becomes inseparable from, and oppressed by, her youthful love affair. We dip into the story five times over the course of several decades, witnessing the meteoric rise of Cecil's fame. Hollinghurst charts the misfortunes of posthumous reputation: Cecil's poetry gradually loses its popularity but his private life comes in for ever greater scrutiny and research. In the course of the book we meet several people who write books about Cecil, ranging from his proud, tormented brother who wants only to escape from his shadow, to the young researcher who is determined to dig up 'the truth', no matter what the emotional cost to Cecil's friends and family. I thoroughly enjoyed the first section of the book, because I'm a sucker for Brideshead Revisited and The Go-Between and Atonement and all those stories of country houses lingering on the brink of, or between, the wars. I was also interested to see Hollinghurst giving such a key role to a female character - Daphne is the rock around which all else swirls and eddies - when he has traditionally focused so strongly on gay male relationships. But... As the book went on, it steadily became clear that virtually all of Hollinghurst's male characters are either openly gay or struggling towards the door of the closet. Now, in itself I have no issue with this (I've enjoyed Hollinghurst's other books), but as he decided to give strong roles to a couple of women in "The Stranger's Child", I felt sorry that he only really seemed to be interested in the romantic dynamics between his male characters. (To be fair to Hollinghurst, he did throw in a curveball of sexual equality by giving one of his female characters a brief Sapphic moment.) However, do you know what would have made me genuinely happy about this book? I would have liked to see that just one of his heterosexual couples was happy. All of them seemed to be in loveless, passionless matches where there was no spark or affection between the partners - the men distant and troubled, the women aloof, intellectual and frustrated. The only people who really fall in love or enjoy themselves in Hollinghurst's worlds, it seems, are the gay men. And, while I admire the elegance of his writing and the cleverness of the concept in this book, that void remains at the emotional centre of his work. It may just be me. And I remain an admirer of his writing and will read his next book too, if only to see where he goes next.
¿He was asking for memories, too young himself to know that memories were only memories of memories.¿ (Pt 4, Ch 10)The Stranger¿s Child begins in the early 1900s and spans several generations. Cecil Valance, mediocre poet and wealthy school chum of George Sawle, visits the Sawles at Two Acres, their modest country home in Middlesex. Cecil and George are lovers, secretly of course, given the era. George¿s younger sister, Daphne, is also attracted to Cecil, an attraction which is encouraged by the poet for self-serving reasons. On taking his leave of the Sawles, Cecil writes a poem entitled ¿Two Acres¿ in Daphne¿s journal. When he is killed in WWI shortly thereafter, his poem becomes ridiculously famous and Valance is elevated to greatness. Incredibly, the lives of the Sawles come to be defined by their acquaintance with Cecil Valance. Some generations later, a young biographer seeks to tell Cecil¿s story ¿ all of it. Needless to say, the truth will be hard gained.The novel is written in five parts, but the next does not follow where the last left off. Rather, Hollinghurst leaves the reader to determine when and where he has picked up the narrative. Themes include the instability of memory, the way it shapes and reshapes our lives, even inaccurately, with time. Through the young biographer, Paul, Hollinghurst seems to advocate how unlikely it is that we might ever really know another, but through the first person. There¿s a theme somewhere in the focus on homosexuality, too; but truthfully, I¿m not sure what Hollinghurst¿s intent was here. I do know it seemed odd to me (and was somewhat grating, if I¿m honest) that not a single heterosexual relationship in the novel appeared contented or sustainable. The strength of The Stranger¿s Child is Hollinghurst¿s writing, which is unquestionably beautiful. The first part of the narrative, highly reminiscent of Brideshead Revisited, drew me in easily. But neither the story or the characters were able to sustain my interest over the novel¿s considerable length. Suffice to say the Booker acclaim fell somewhat flat on me.
This was the first novel I decided to read for my 2011 Booker challenge, not out of interest, but because it¿s the only book on the longlist that I am absolutely confident will make the shortlist. I¿ve never read any of Hollinghurst¿s previous work, but his last novel, The Line of Beauty, won the 2004 Booker (over my favourite novel of all time, David Mitchell¿s Cloud Atlas).Hollinghurst is generally considered to be one of the finest English writers alive, but his reputation and his previous win are not the only reason he¿s the bookie¿s favourite to take home this year¿s prize. There¿s a phrase called ¿Oscar bait,¿ which refers to a film that calculatingly appeals to the literary sensibilities of the Academy: an important historical setting (especially World War II), a little-known illness or affliction, being a biopic, homosexuality etc. The King¿s Speech, The English Patient and Forrest Gump are all excellent examples. But the phrase Booker bait could be used as well, and it seems it is, Grub Street being the first but not the only Google hit for it. Although the Booker prize is more likely to reward inventive and unusual novels than its transatlantic counterpart the Pulitzer (which often goes to a multi-generational story of immigrants), it¿s still susceptible to seduction by a 550-page brick of a family saga set across the sweeping panorama of 20th century history. Particularly if much of it is set in an English country manor, as The Stranger¿s Child is.The Stranger¿s Child follows the story of the Sawle and Valance families, beginning in 1913 with the young poet Cecil Valance visiting his ¿friend¿ George Sawle at his family¿s home for the weekend. While here, Cecil writes a poem called ¿Two Acres¿ which later becomes famous, and the rest of the book follows the intertwining fates of the Sawles and Valances, and the rise and fall of Cecil¿s literary reputation. The later chapters feature a biographer interviewing the surviving family members and penning a biography about him, and the novel¿s key theme is about how history consists largely of memories and mythologies, rather than what actually happened.I can¿t say I particularly enjoyed it. Hollinghurst¿s prose style, while perfectly functional, isn¿t particularly beautiful, and he rarely impressed me with his descriptions or turns of phrase. He also has an annoying habit of having his characters endlessly analyse every little thing said to them, or that they say, playing it back over in their heads and doubting the motives behind it, or how it appeared to other people. This is of course how people¿s thought processes actually run, even if we¿re not aware of it most of the time, but to read it on the page is quickly tiring.The five chapters in the book make massive leaps across time, and most of the action in the characters¿ lives ¿ births, deaths, marriages and separations ¿ takes place off-screen. This is part of the point of the novel, but I found it difficult to keep track of all the new children and relationships, and by the end of the novel there were characters whom I¿d forgotten about, and whom I couldn¿t quite remember how they were related to the other characters. This may be my problem, not Hollinghurst¿s, but I¿d be remiss not to mention it.My overall impression of The Stranger¿s Child was a mostly (but not terribly) dull book, which I often found myself slogging through, half a thousand pages of parties and domestic evenings and discussions about poets. And gay sex, of course, though apparently he toned it down from his last novels.BOOKER PREDICTIONDefinitely a shoe-in for the shortlist and, as I mentioned earlier, the bookie¿s favourite to win. But as I also mentioned, the Booker committee isn¿t as susceptible to ¿bait¿ works as the Academy Awards or the Pulitzer Prize. They¿re just as likely to reward it to a historical fiction novel like True History of the Kelly Gang, or a work of magical realism like Life of Pi. If The Stranger¿s Child does win ¿ w
What has happened to our standards for great literature? Whatever happened to requiring a novel to be well-written AND entertaining before considering it to have literary merit worthy of an award such as the Mann Booker Prize? After reading this tome, I feel I should be the one to receive an award - an award for dogged determination. It took a real effort to finish the book; I did so only out of some bizarre sense of fairness, wanting to give the author every chance to live up to his reputation. If life were fair, I would be given back the hours I devoted to the reading. This book is a multi-generational family saga with a gay twist. In 1913, Cecil Valance, a young poet, visits the family of his friend, George Sawle. The two university students are lovers, although this relationship, of course, is kept secret. Cecil is actually bisexual and makes an advance to Daphne, George's sixteen-year-old, impressionable sister. As a parting gift, Cecil leaves a poem which eventually becomes his best-known; everyone seems to assume that Daphne is the muse, unaware that George is the more likely inspiration. Four other sections of the book, covering various years between 1926 and 2008, touch on the lives of Valance and Sawle family members, all somehow looking back to that initial contact between the families in 1913. Obviously, much changes in that time period: some people die and others are born, reputations are made and revised, some secrets are kept and some remain hidden, attitudes to homosexuality evolve, country life is superseded by urbanization.I've read many reviews of the book which praise Hollinghurst's ability to use the English language in original ways, and I admit to admiring some of his lyrical turns of phrase. His diction is often described as lush. The problem is that reading his lush writing feels like roaming through an extravagantly lush garden. Are there really beautiful flowers in all that abundant growth? Did the author not see the irony in his titular allusion to Tennyson: "And year by year the landscape grow"? Too much of the author's lush style and flowery descriptions of surroundings may make one want to become a lush!Hollinghurst tackles some serious themes (e.g. the limits of human knowledge, especially knowledge of others; the fallibility of memory since "memories [are] only memories of memories"; the vagaries of aesthetics and literary reputation; biography as a type of fiction; the history of changing attitudes to homosexuality) so can justifiably be praised for his erudition. However, erudition conveyed tediously does not make for good fiction. Good interpretative literature will possess an interesting plot and characters since they too are elements of fiction. There is not much of a plot because not much happens; the focus is on analyzing and re-analyzing the initial event, Cecil's visit to Two Acres, and its consequences. A lack of plot can be forgiven but poor characterization cannot. In my studies of literature in university, I was taught that good characterization requires that characters behave consistently, be motivated, and be credible. In this novel there is little explanation of motivation; the reader does not get to understand what motivates characters to behave as they do, to make the choices they do. I can understand how this lack of understanding helps to develop the theme of our inability to truly understand others, but vague, abstract development of an extensive cast of characters, all of whom are shallow and unlikable, is problematic. Furthermore, virtually every man in the book is gay, whether he does or does not recognize his latent homosexual desires. Many people have commented on similarities between this novel and others such as Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day" and McEwan's"Atonement" and Byatt's "Possession." I would highly recommend all three of these; Hollinghurst's seems a poor amalgamation. The impression is that his editor, in awe of Holling
Period drama meets social satire in Alan Hollinghurst¿s capable handsAlan Hollinghurst¿s latest epic opens on a scene I found very reminiscent of Ian McEwan¿s Atonement. It¿s a wealthy British country house, and the family is looking forward to son, George, coming home for a visit with his school friend, Cecil. Over the course of a long weekend, Cecil is involved with greater or lesser romantic escapades with members of the family, and winds up writing a lengthy poem that immortalizes both the events of that weekend and eventually the man. That poem is what he will forever be remembered for, and in ways the writing of it alters the family for generations.For the entire novel, told in five parts and covering most of the last century, springs from that opening section. The events of that weekend ripple forward through time in unexpected ways. The novel is written in an episodic fashion, so as each section opens, the reader must figure out when and where they are, and must look for familiar characters and connections to add to the whole.It is no surprise that former Booker Prize-winner Hollinghurst writes beautifully, but not being familiar with his work, I was a little surprised by his talent for humor and satire. For this novel is definitely having fun with the British class system. I¿m confident I¿d have enjoyed it all the more if I was English, but I enjoyed it plenty as is. And while there¿s a healthy dose of humor and that satirical edge, Hollinghurst sells his drama equally well. Characters are richly developed, and Hollinghurst has an expansive canvas on which to tell his tale. He believably depicts nearly a century¿s worth of historic periods, and has clearly done his homework. All in all, The Stranger¿s Child was a success on all counts.
Well written but nonetheless tedious account of a literary family. Hard to believe that 90% of the love affairs mentioned in this book were gay relationships.
This year¿s Booker Prize shortlist has yielded few surprises for me this year, and Hollinghurst¿s contribution falls within my slightly disappointed category. The Sawles of Two Acres are excited ¿ George is bringing home a friend from Cambridge for the weekend, a poet called Cecil. Sister Daphne is first to meet Cecil but before long he has them all under his spell and a seemingly eternal connection to the two families is forged.Sound a little Brideshead Revisited? Well ... maybe, except Cecil doesn¿t really hang around all that long, losing his life in the trenches of World War I. But what he leaves behind, both in spirit and in the form of his poems is what drives this story, although I¿m afraid the story is much like the drive Miss Daisy would take ¿ in a word, slow.Nobody does the upper crust of contemporary English society quite like Hollinghurst. They sweep through the pages at their own leisure and under their own steam, taking no interest in dramatising for your benefit. Clever writing, but in this instance frustrating for me. Time and again, Hollinghurst would build to what seemed to be a climax where all would come to light and everyone exposed, just to slam the lid back on, and that infuriating British wall of respectability would stop you cold!Hollinghurst¿s Line of Beauty does not differ much from this latest offering, except it does it in half the pages, so the outcome and the road to it is much more intense. For me, what is compelling about his style of writing is lost within these 600+ pages.So if you must, take the drive. Just don¿t expect a whirlwind of a ride, for what you get is a sedate ramble.
Alan Hollinghurst's novel about the intrigue(?) surrounding a minor poet who dies in WWI started out delightfully. The interactions between Cecil Valance (the poet) and George, Daphne, and others in the Sawle household are lightly tense with the mystery of who Cecil really is. In each large section, the novel moves forward significantly in time and the second and third sections, "Revel" and "Steady, Boys, Steady!" are where Hollinghurst demonstrates his talent for subtlety and humor. In Daphne, who marries Cecil's brother after the war, we get a complicated character entrenched in her time. She numbs herself with alcohol to manage the loss of a romantic life and determinedly takes any number of secrets to her grave. In Paul - a bank employee who later becomes a biographer with intense interest in the life of Cecil Valance - we get insight into the anguish experienced by those who must so carefully hide their true selves that they aren't even fully aware of the process of hiding. That is, Paul knows all too well what he is hiding. It's the constancy and depth of the hiding that he takes for granted. Hollinghurst is neither pedantic nor bitter about this necessary invisibility. Indeed, he seems rather amused by the interpersonal games young men and women played as they came of age in the early to mid 20th century with various unnameable desires (and we're not just talking sex here), and his novel allows us to travel through the changes in the consciousness of erudite English society of that century. Hollinghurst is a wonderful writer. Occasionally, a sentence or passage would almost take my breath away. He explores the dehumanizing social mores of the time with irreverent humor and he understands the longing of the most mundane of human souls. Still, by the last quarter of the novel, it was a slog. I stopped caring whether Cecil's queerness would be made public and what impact that would have on his reputation and popularity as a minor poet of the early 20th century. I needed *something* just a little bit surprising or exciting to happen. This is a novel with more promise than achievement.
The Stranger's Child is a beautifully written novel that explores the extent to which we can know others. The novel spans almost a century, beginning in 1915 with poet Cecil Valance's visit to his friend George's house, "Two Acres."Cecil is central to the rest of the novel although he dies during WWI. His life and death influence his family and the biographers and scholars who want to write about him. In a wonderful irony, we see the biographers interview people involved with Cecil, and we know they are asking all of the wrong questions. We, the readers, also know that many of Cecil's family and friends knew only bits of his life.The language is exquisite. Hollinghurst captures people and places with a few deft phrases. He describes Wilfrid's relationship with his father: "So Wilfrid went to his father, and was pulled experimentally for a second or two against the heavy strange-scented skirts of the brocade dressing gown. It was the touch of privilege, a feel of the luxurious concessions allowed when something awful had happened, and in the interesting surprise of it he at once stopped crying."People at a party: "In the deepening shadows between pools of candlelight, the guests, gathering up bags and glasses, conversations stretching and breaking, in an amiable jostle as they bunched in through the french windows seemed ... like a flickering frieze..."This wonderful novel will certainly be one of the year's best.
After reading "The Line of Beauty" I found this to be a disappointment. His writing is excellent and he does a great job of conveying the inner thoughts and attitudes of his characters. They react to each social encounter with a multitude of attitudes. However, I basically found the story to be not very compelling. I kept waiting for something more significant to happen as the novel moved through almost a 100 years. I found the fascination with a minor poet and the fact that every character, major or minor, new about the Poet, to be a bit beyond belief. Having read 2 books by Hollinghurst books, I would recommend "The Line of Beauty".
I read recently of a new organization for asexuals. A young man has set up a website for fellow asexual people. He is at Columbia Uni. (or was it CUNY). I was surprised at the number of persons of both genders he found to subscribe. It was in the thousands. These people are asexual, not celibates who are sexual but choose not to engage in sex. There was a figure that 1% of the population are asexual, just people who aren't interested at all. It reminds me of English people (of which I¿m mostly one) or of the `no sex we¿re British¿ public persona of so many. None of the smells, curves, feelings of lust or the exhilaration of sex do anything for asexual people. Another figure elsewhere has said that 2% of the population are intersex - that is, of not exactly one or the other gender. Kinsey's famous report said that about 35% of the population had participated in same gender sex to orgasm. Yet another figure elsewhere says that only 10% of the population are living as homosexual. That means a lot of gay people pretend to be straight. It seems that heterosexuals have the numbers at about 60% to win the impression that everyone is straight. Which of course is not so and that for centuries in our civilisation the convention that and all should behave as straight is a calumny that dominated for too long.Hollinghurst's novel "The Stranger's Child" seems to built on a premise that it is a deep strain in English culture that sex doesn't happen ¿ or is invisible - and that the only allowable public coupling is of chaste girl-boy 'Oh rather!' expressions which is 'Jolly good' at most. The only allowable evidence of sex happening is the birth of a baby. The cliché is that Victorian sex education for girls was that oft quoted line of 'lie back and think of England'. But, of course, an Hollinghurst novel is about the sexual undercurrent in English society ¿ particularly, to paraphrase, the sex that `dare not speak its name¿. I, for one, am glad he does and does so in beautifully written novels.'The Stranger's Child' begins with the Daphne as a 16 year old reading poetry, swinging in the garden hammock wistfully waiting for her older brother's friend to arrive. The friend is the young poet Cecil Valance elder son of one England's baronets. Daphne is the dupe (Fag Hag in gay culture) around whom the book darts. Cecil is the war poet around whom the book lingers. Cecil is the slightly older handsome lusty Cambridge rich young man who is the lover of the very desirable brother of Daphne, George. But this is 1913. Daphne has no idea of what Cecil and George are up to. Nor do any members of the family. The family friend Harry Hewitt does but he is bent on his purpose of getting George's older brother, the dull Hubert, into bed. We, the readers, know the Great War is hanging over them all. Though the young male lovers are members of the Cambridge Apostles - or some such like organization - and thus we in 2012 know that through that, as homosexual men, they have some social support, they still live in the real world of 1913 where they can be no public indication of same sex coupling; probably no indication at all that sex was fun. Having only recently been awakened to his sexuality, all George wants for the long weekend visit of Cecil to the family home is lots of secret time with him so they can have lots of deeply meaningful passionate sex that those in-love have. Cecil is George's first lover and George wants as much sex as his dominate - and slightly cruel - lover can give him. But Daphne happens by the swimming pond in the wood where Cecil and George are 'at it' and though George believes she doesn't see or know of anything, and we the reader know she didn't, Cecil isn't sure. So, drunk and in the garden in the dark, while trying to find out how much Daphne knows Cecil fumbles and sort of makes `the move¿ on Daphne which Daphne doesn't make much sense of at the time. But then, she is of a generation of gals wh
Brilliant writer with a gift for manipulating the English language, Hollingsworth has created a family saga that spans its generations over a century, following the Sawles and Valances, two literary families that ran with the Bloomsbury set, were dramatically affected by the two wars and experienced the ripple effect of some of its prominent members' hidden sexual orientation. So many times I found myself thinking after a particular sentence or passage, "Oh, that nuance, he's got it just right, that is how it feels, seems, appears... and he put into words, I need to mark this passage." Stylistically, mood, setting, and subject matter wise, there are similarities to the work of Henry James, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, E.M. Forster, Ian McEwan.
Here's a book that will bring some comfort to those suffering from Downtown Abbey Withdrawal Syndrome. The narrative spans several generations of well-educated, well-to-do Brits and their connection with a young poet who died in the Great War. Cecil Valance is famous for one poem, Two Acres, about the charms of an English country house, and, most readers assume, of its female inhabitant. The reader learns in the opening pages that Cecil is in fact having an affair with the young lady's brother, a fact which a subsequent biographer is determined to ferret out.It's a very enjoyable read that goes down like candy, in spite of its leisurely pace. I was worried at first that the generational tales would be purely episodic, but they end up swirling around a number of themes, most obviously the fragile nature of "truth" when talking about human lives. It's telling that the character we come to know most intimately is the biographer, while his subjects are more elusive.Alan Hollinghurst won the Booker for The Line of Beauty, and now I suppose I have one more title to add to my wish list.
This is a very good book, in a sweeping-literary-saga way. It seemed to me like a (much) better version of A.S. Byatt's "The Children's Book." He's an excellent writer. It's a good story. But, perplexingly, I think I may like another of his books better. So it seems that "The Stranger's Child" has both convinced me of his tremendous talent and yet somehow missed the highest mark for me. But it's so good that it left me wanting to read more of his work.
Alan Hollinghurst takes on a long sweep of history in this story of upper-class Britons and their intricate, intertwined lives. On the cusp of World War I, the Sawle family welcomes son George's school pal Cecil Valance, who quickly charms the pants off at least one of them. He leaves behind a poem about the Sawles's home "Two Acres" and a lasting impression on young Daphne. The next chapters are set in the mid-1920s, with Cecil now a famous Dead Poet, and Daphne married to his younger brother Dudley and living at the Valance estate along with the dowager Lady Valance. Time moves on, and so does Daphne, until in the 1970s, she meets a young bank clerk who later attempts to write a biography of Cecil, the really not very good, but irretrievably Dead, Poet.Much of this I found occasionally mildly interesting but more often somewhat tedious. More engaging was pondering afterward what underlies Hollinghurst's novel: the mutability of memory; the morphing of history, personal and global, through differing perspectives, notably that of gay men; the decline of poetry and particularly of the capital P poets of Rupert Brooke's era; the impossibility of writing a biography that even with all the facts straight can get at the Truth; the possibility that photography can better capture reality. But my first thought on finishing the book was to wonder about the seemingly insatiable and protean appetites of the upper-crustians....The houses in "The Stranger's Child" are among the best characters, and also morph and are found and lost and live and die and hold countless secrets. Their stories touched me more profoundly than did those of the much-married Daphne and the beautiful, shallow Cecil.
Didn't find this to be nearly as good as The Line Of Beauty. It's set around two families of different social standing over at least three generations. Of course, this being Hollinghurst, there are gays, but there's a lot less explicit sex than in The LIne Of Beauty. It's engaging enough to read but didn't leave much of a lasting impression on me. Naive, earnest young man turns into pompous sixty-year-old. And so on.The writing is good. For example: "¿ his guest was a writing man. He himself [Jonah, the servant] could write neatly, and could read almost anything, given the time." And, "¿creeper spread like doubt around the openings ¿," to quote just a couple of examples of many.
Very well written