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The Stranger's Child
By Alan Hollinghurst
Knopf, 435 pages, $32
BRITISH author Alan Hollinghurst's last novel, the Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty, took place in Thatcher's England in the '80s and focused on gay characters who were out, if not always accepted.
His brilliant, if sometimes exasperating, new book, a family saga spanning three generations, is set in a more closeted era.
It opens in 1913, when George Sawle has daringly decided to bring his Cambridge friend Cecil Valance, a handsome, aristocratic charmer and a published poet, to visit his family's home, Two Acres.
George's sister, Daphne, is 16 and dazzled by Cecil, oblivious (possibly wilfully so) to the fact that he and George are lovers.
The charismatic, bisexual Cecil is in love with himself, in love with everyone around him, and in love with making people around him love him. His visit to the Sawles' home sets in motion events that change the lives of all involved.
He writes a poem in Daphne's autograph book, a romantic ode to Two Acres and perhaps a love poem to her. After his death in the Great War, it comes to be regarded as a vision of the innocence of pre-war England, widely anthologized and memorized by schoolchildren.
Hollinghurst jumps ahead chronologically and changes narrative perspective in a way that's disorienting but very effective in terms of showing the passage of time and its distorting effects.
We see Daphne go from wide-eyed teenager, brimming with enthusiasm and unfocused passions, to an unhappy wife and mother (though not without passion), to an old woman who is a bit of a harridan and a sot.
Cecil's reputation is burnished and tarnished in turn as the years pass. George represses his sexuality in order to live a middle-class British life as a married professor.
A young writer, Paul, who becomes entwined with the Valance/Sawle family (themselves entwined in an unexpected way) sets out to write a biography of Cecil, and threatens to unravel some of the families' secrets.
As Paul gets nearer to the truth, however, Hollinghurst seems to say that the facts aren't really important. No dry book will ever capture the way George felt about Cecil, and in the end, how much weight did that one relationship assume in his personal history? No one's life, complicated and vast, can ever be summed up, even by the most attentive biographer.
Hollinghurst is a lovely writer, descriptive without being flowery, and the casual savagery of the social classes — so particular to England — is minutely observed. But the novel is dense with an often exhausting amount of subtext — no one's glance is straightforward, everyone's smile hides a smirk (or vice versa), nobody says exactly what they mean. Readers may find themselves longing for an expression that goes unexamined by the author.
Some things do go unexamined, however. In Hollinghurst's previous novels, sex, usually graphically described, has taken centre stage; in The Stranger's Child, it informs everything, but it's on the edges. The book is more about longing, suppression and nostalgia — and nobody does longing like Hollinghurst.
The book isn't full of shocking or particularly momentous occasions, but it moves at the breathless pace of a mystery novel, with Hollinghurst greatly attuned to the way an afternoon drink in the garden can be a forgettable, quotidian event to one person and a life-changing moment to another.
Jill Wilson is a Free Press copy editor.
Senior copy editor
Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.