Booker Prize Longlist: The Stranger's Child

Booker Prize Longlist: The Stranger's Child
Alan Hollinghurst
Reviewed by Alice O'Keeffe
Picador
Mon, 27/06/2011
9780330483247
£20.00

Nominated for the 2011 Booker Prize, The Stranger’s Child is Alan Hollinghurst’s fifth novel, and his first since the acclaimed The Line of Beauty won the 2004 Booker Prize.

The Stranger’s Child opens in 1913, the last summer before the Great War, when the dazzling young aristocratic poet Cecil Valance pays a visit to the middle-class family home of his Cambridge chum George Sawle. During the weekend Cecil makes quite an impression on all the Sawles, not least on George’s 16-year-old sister Daphne for whom he writes a poem ‘Two Acres’.

The intrigues, secrets and passions of this weekend reverberate through the rest of the novel as the stories of the Sawle and Valance families unfold over five widely spaced episodes spanning nearly a century. The next section of the novel takes place in 1926 when Daphne, now Lady Valance following her marriage to Cecil’s brother Dudley, hosts a weekend party at Corley Court in memory of Cecil, who was killed during the war. Early death has preserved Cecil and his poetry and in the episodes that follow we see how a literary reputation changes over time. Cecil is by turns fêted – claimed as a war poet when Churchill quotes ‘Two Acres’ – and later reviled. As time goes on – the novel jumps to 1967, 1980 and finally 2008 – various biographers and critics seek to uncover the true story behind the poem and the events of the 1913 weekend, and what has been concealed or forgotten over time.

Hollinghurst’s earlier novels, particularly his striking debut The Swimming Pool Library (1988) and The Spell (1998) were set in a gay world chronicling the life, loves and gay identity of the (male) characters. In The Stranger’s Child, Daphne, a straight woman, is the principle thread running through the novel as we follow her from childhood through to old age against the backdrop of a rapidly changing England, but this is still a novel is that has the gay experience at its heart, illuminating the shifting attitudes to homosexuality over the course of a century.

Ambitious both in structure and sweep this is a beautifully written and absorbing story. Having so much time elapse between each episode is potentially  disorientating for the reader, who is plunged straight into the fray each time, and must work out what’s happened to each character in the time that has passed ‘off-stage’. But Hollinghurst masterfully sustains the reader’s curiosity and this is a dazzling novel – one of my books of the year, and it’s only June.
 

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