IoS paperback review: The Stranger's Child, By Alan Hollinghurst
Far-reaching effects of a poet's life
Sunday 16 December 2012
Cecil Valance is a poet, aristocrat, and Cambridge undergraduate, whom we meet in 1913 when he visits his friend and clandestine lover George Sawle at his home, Two Acres.
Cecil also finds time for a brief flirtation with George's younger sister, Daphne, and writes a poem for her autograph album which becomes one of his most famous works – posthumously, as he is killed in the Great War.
The first 105 pages are a preternaturally vivid and deliciously readable evocation of Edwardian Britain, which might have been written by E M Forster or Ford Madox Ford, and the excerpts of Cecil's poetry are a pitch-perfect parody of the early 20th-century English pastoral genre of verse, written in jingling tetrameters – the titles alone, "Two Acres", "Soldiers Dreaming" and "The Old Companions" suggest a kind of sub Rupert Brooke. The next section is an equally vivid evocation of Britain in the 1920s; and the next section, Britain in the 1960s; and so on, up to 2008, and in each era the effects of Cecil's life and death on the survivors change, as the truth becomes overlaid by mythology.
The gradual ageing and changing of Daphne and the rest of the Sawle family is brilliantly observed – almost as if Hollinghurst belongs to a race of elves which live long enough to witness the entire life-cycle of a human being.
A novel about time, and change, and art, and sex, and death, which is also as light as a soufflé. It's clever, subtle, melancholy, and amusing all at the same time. It's a reviewer's cliche, I know, but I did actually miss my stop on the Tube while reading this.
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