This is a book that has been on my ‘to-read list’ for a while – as Alan Hollinghurst‘s The Stranger’s Child was long listed for the 2011 Booker Prize. Well most of you know how my booker-thon went last year (managed to read only one of the 13 long listed books – the one which, I might add, actually went on to win the prize. I did get to feel smug for a few days but then I would just remind myself the reason why I started with Julian Barnes The Sense of Ending – the fact that it was the shortest book!). Anyway, I finally got around to reading another book on last year’s long list with The Stranger’s Child. Hollinghurst, of course won the Booker in 2004 with The Line of Beauty. When I was living in the UK they made this into a series on TV and I caught a few episodes of it, but the actor playing the main character annoyed me, and I must admit this put me off reading the book as well.
The Stranger’s Child follows the story of the Sawle and Valance families throughout the 20th century. Cecil Valance, and emerging poet comes to stay with his Cambridge university friend and secret lover, George Sawle. Georges’ sixteen year old sister, Daphne, is excited to meet a real poet, and an aristocratic one at that, and asks Cecil to write something in her autograph book. Cecil does more than just sign the book, he writes a poem; a poem that becomes with war looming a touchstone of englishness, even quoted by Churchill. The poem and knowing Cecil Valance changes all of the Sawle’s for good and bad. The book reads like a Henry James or E. M Forrester novel with gay relationships the focus of repression, instead of class or money as is the case of a James or Forrester novel.
Cecil, of course is killed in WW1, this all adds to the tragedy and the creation of the poetic myth that surrounds him. ”Of course one indulged the dead, wrote off their debts; one forgave them as one lamented them; and cecil had been mightily clever and fearless, no doubt, and had broken many hearts in his short life. But surely no one but Louisa could want a new memorial to him, ten years after his passing? Here they all were, submissively clutching their contributions. A dispiriting odour, a false piety and dutiful suppression, seemed to rise from the table and hang like cabbage-smells in the jelly-mould domes of the ceiling”.
The writing is also very good, beautiful, but flows along lightly in the way that Peter Carey’s work didn’t. The number of characters and how they are all revisited t different stages of their lives makes this satisfying read and you don’t notice the 550+ pages. The ending is also mysterious and beautiful – all the secrets that the book has tried to keep the whole way through are released but in a way that shows that there were never really any secrets and that everything was already known.