Only a really good writer could have pulled off The Stranger’s Child. And only a really good writer could have given it the subtle depth charge that I still find blooming in my memory, 24 hours after I put the book down. Alan Hollinghurst deserves all the credit he’s been given for this poignant meditation on the merciless advance of time.
Mind you, this is a quiet book. My friend the Discerning Reader (who characterized it as “wistful”) said he rather longed for a car chase by 3/4 of the way through, but, folks, it’s not that kind of book. We have instead to do with the brief life and subsequent reputation of an aristocratic English poet named Cecil Valance. Subsequent, that is to say, over the course of 100 years. Hollinghurst’s achievement is to present Cecil to us as a young man full of promise, and then, in later chapters, explore how he — and those who knew him — are remembered.
This requires some patience from the reader. With each new section we’re introduced to new characters and Hollinghurst is in no hurry to connect the dots. The first part, called “Two Acres,” introduces Cecil as the flamboyant and sexually omnivorous guest of the Sawle family at their house called “Two Acres.” Cecil writes a poem by that name in sixteen-year-old Daphne Sawle’s autograph book — a poem that later becomes a cornerstone of English poetry anthologies — but it’s her elder brother George who’s in love with Cecil.
Then we jump forward to a different era but Hollinghurst takes his time identifying the time, the place, the players, and their connections with the previous section. This happens three more times, for five sections, and each time the reader must grope his way along to find the links among the chapters. By the end, Cecil’s reputation, the house he lived in, the letters he wrote to George, have all faded or disappeared.
It’s the way Hollinghurst guides us through this inevitable process that matters. He’s discerning about social standing, slyly funny, generous with setting and detail, and all of that’s very enjoyable. But he also makes a discomfiting point about emotions and relationships. The “Two Acres” chapter crackles with youthful energy and infatuation, but by the next section Daphne (now nearly forty) ruminates that “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.” Yet people keep on pressing her to opine. Documents move from one generation to another; books are written, letters are burned, the vivid emotions that Hollinghurst opens with are kept secret, elided, speculated about. And, finally, no longer matter, except to a small handful of people — and to them, only at second hand.