The Stranger’s Child

Alan Hollinghurst

First Sentence:   She’d been lying in the hammock reading poetry for over an hour.

This is my first time reading anything by Alan Hollinghurst and I have to say, even though I can see why he gets the praise he does, and even though I did enjoy this book, it just didn’t blow me away like I was expecting it to. It starts off before the first World War and we are introduced to Cecil Valance, a poet who comes to visit Two Acres, the family home of his lover George Sawle. The beginning is extremely well done and I found myself genuinely interested in the characters and moved by the writing. Unfortunately, this feeling did not last the length of the book, with the middle section in particular feeling a lot like hard work. Each section of the book  jumps forward in time, right up to the 21st Century, and each section is somehow centred on Cecil’s life and legacy. Even though he is killed in the Great War, his poetry lives on, in particular the poem entitled Two Acres which was written either for George or for George’s sister Daphne (who Cecil also has a brief fling with). Two of the main concerns of the book would have to be the gay theme (from the relative innocence of the early 1900’s to modern-day queer theorists) and the literary reputation of writers, and in a way these are the two things which became the most cloying for me the more I read. It seems obvious that Hollinghurst is preoccupied with these themes and as a result this book just felt far too aware of itself and of its place in contemporary fiction. Maybe I’m being overly harsh or maybe I’m reading too much into it but my opinion of the book would be the same regardless. Well written certainly, but certainly not a masterpiece. (I’d much rather see DeWitt win the Booker this year!) I think Daphne, who is a wonderful creation and a character we see grow from young girl to elderly woman with supreme dignity sums it up perfectly for me when she talks about her reading experiences:

She’d felt something similar, but worse in a way, about hundreds and hundreds of books she’d read, novels , biographies, occasional books about music and art – she could remember nothing about them at all, so that it seemed rather pointless even to say that she had read them; such claims were a thing people set great store by but she hardly supposed they recalled any more than she did. Sometimes a book persisted as a coloured shadow at the edge of sight, as vague and unrecapturable as something seen in the rain from a passing vehicle: looked at directly it vanished altogether. Sometimes there were atmospheres, even the rudiments of a scene: a man in an office looking over Regent’s Park, rain in the streets outside – a little blurred etching of a situation she would never, could never, trace back to its source in a novel she had read some time, she thought, in the past thirty years.

This, I’m afraid, is exactly how I’ll feel about this book in a couple of years. Or maybe even a couple of months…

* * *

Last Sentence:   He looked on the phone for the text, and caught the smell of smoke on his hands.

Last Sentence explained:  The final section of the book is set in 2008 with rare book dealer Rob Salter showing an interest in the Valance-Sawle connection. This section, along with the opening one was probably my favourite and I really like the way the book begins in a hammock and ends with a text message; from telegrams to twitter it is bookended quite nicely. Some aspects of this book I really do like and I wish I could say it is wonderful, but I simply can’t. I’ll have to settle for ‘well-written’ instead.

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