The Stranger's Child
- Pan Macmillan
- Publication Date:
- 24 May 2012
- Modern & Contemporary
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Brilliant Perceptive and nuanced writing. I like the way you have to work out at the beginning of each section what has happened in the interim– not what you might have expected, and with various false leads thrown in. In danger of rather too many characters to keep tack of.
This is a stunningly good book about the way the silence surrounding homosexual practices in certain eras and more particularly, the vagaries of memory and the instability of personality render biography writing other than the mere recitation of dates essentailly impossible. As a Rupert Brooke-obsessed youngster, I was baffled by the biographies then available and their occasional dark hints at something nasty in the woodshed, which turned out to be homosexuality, or bi-sexuality, and girlfriend's possible abortions, etc.. All this had been carefully expunged from the manufactured image of Brooke fostered by his grieving mother and friends -well, it was 'the love that dares not speak its name' then, and definitely not to be talked of with the Ranee, as Brooke called his mother. In Hollinghurst's novel, his more second-rate Great War poet, Cecil, calls his mother, the General. He calls girlfriends 'child', as Brooke did. He keeps quiet about his homosexual affairs. There are other similarities, but Hollingshurst is careful to remind us constantly that Cecil was a much more second-rate poet, younger than Brooke whom he knew slightly at university. Holroyd and his biography of Lytton Strachey – that back-breaking, wildly exciting book that broke open the secrets of the Bloomsberries – also figure, and the biographer in Hollinghurst's book, Paul, is suggestive of Holroyd. The book is very cleverly structured. It begins with scenes from Cecil's life showing that interpretations of his most famous poem are based on frequently false assumptions – even Cecil himself may had problems stating unequivocally that the poem was 'about' this or that person, and then constantly shifts focus amongst those who were connected with Cecil and those who are feeding off the appetite for knowledge on 'the life' in a way that allows us to see how misunderstandings multiply inevitably. Certain phrases resonated: 'Paul already knew that information was a form of property – people who had it liked to protect it'; 'He was asking for memories, too young himself to know that memories were only memories of memories'; and, most tellingly, 'And the rest is biography,' said Rob with a wise grin. The biographer's own agendas, his/her unconscious agendas, those of the people they interview, false memories, adjusted memories, the annoyance at finding oneself in old age valued merely as the possible repository of an anecdote of someone who may have been important to you 60 years ago but you could now barely remember, the frustration of the priceless papers that vanish, the houses that seem so stable and permanent – like memory – and then turn into schools, shops, flats and are knocked down. What do we know of ourselves? And yet our ceaseless appetite for every scrap of information we can find on favourite writers, and our ability to make that information prove whatever we want it to. Holllinghurst also nails the basically voyeuristic nature of this obsessiveness need to know, even -especially? - on the part of academics. Absolutely fascinating and thought-provoking.
What a sumptuous feast. We move in this book through five distinct periods of time with the work and life of a second-rate fictional poet Cecil Valance running through as the thread that links them together. As ever Hollinghurst's writing is superb and makes you stop and re-read sentences simply to savour his skill. However, this books is very different from his earlier work with far less sex and far more dialogue. The storyline also seems much more complex and has elements of the thriller running through it - will they find they lost letters or missing parts of the poem?I loved the Forster-esque opening section and in my mind the "Two Acres" of this book became synonymous with "Windy Corner" the home of the Honeychurch family where they are visited by another Cecil who also rather looks down on their suburban home. The third section which introduces to us Paul Bryant the young provincial bank clerk soon to be Cecil's biographer is also very enjoyable but I confess that I found the fourth section where Bryant is writing his book about Cecil V rather tedious. The reader already knows most of the secrets but we have to watch on the sidelines as Bryant is frustrated at nearly every turn from finding out the truth.As ever Hollinghurst creates very real, complex characters complete with all the conflicting positive and negative aspects you'd expect from real humanity. There are no heroes and you come away liking characters while suspecting their motives and understanding their behaviour while wishing it were otherwise.
This is yet another lyrical book from Hollinghurst. He is particularly good at representing the allure of closed circles to outsiders. Those circles can be social, as we see in the third part of this book, when middle-class Paul finds himself in the charmed circle of Mrs Jacobs and her family. They can also be circles of friendship or love, like the relationship between Cecil and George at the beginning of the book, of which innocent Daphne wants so much to be a part. Hollinghurst's broader theme here is the persistence of memory. He explores the way that the past can overpower the present and drain life of its savour; the relationship of biographer to biographee; and the efforts to which people go, to ensure that their view becomes the canonical view.It all centres on Cecil Valance, a talented young poet who spends a few days in 1916 staying with George Sawle, a university friend. Flirting harmlessly with his friend's sister Daphne (while simultaneously carrying on a much more serious flirtation with George), Cecil writes a long poem in her autograph book. When he is killed in action in the First World War, his family promotes and celebrates his talent. The poem in Daphne's book is published and becomes recognised as his greatest work; and Daphne herself gradually becomes inseparable from, and oppressed by, her youthful love affair. We dip into the story five times over the course of several decades, witnessing the meteoric rise of Cecil's fame. Hollinghurst charts the misfortunes of posthumous reputation: Cecil's poetry gradually loses its popularity but his private life comes in for ever greater scrutiny and research. In the course of the book we meet several people who write books about Cecil, ranging from his proud, tormented brother who wants only to escape from his shadow, to the young researcher who is determined to dig up 'the truth', no matter what the emotional cost to Cecil's friends and family. I thoroughly enjoyed the first section of the book, because I'm a sucker for Brideshead Revisited and The Go-Between and Atonement and all those stories of country houses lingering on the brink of, or between, the wars. I was also interested to see Hollinghurst giving such a key role to a female character - Daphne is the rock around which all else swirls and eddies - when he has traditionally focused so strongly on gay male relationships. But... As the book went on, it steadily became clear that virtually all of Hollinghurst's male characters are either openly gay or struggling towards the door of the closet. Now, in itself I have no issue with this (I've enjoyed Hollinghurst's other books), but as he decided to give strong roles to a couple of women in "The Stranger's Child", I felt sorry that he only really seemed to be interested in the romantic dynamics between his male characters. (To be fair to Hollinghurst, he did throw in a curveball of sexual equality by giving one of his female characters a brief Sapphic moment.) However, do you know what would have made me genuinely happy about this book? I would have liked to see that just one of his heterosexual couples was happy. All of them seemed to be in loveless, passionless matches where there was no spark or affection between the partners - the men distant and troubled, the women aloof, intellectual and frustrated. The only people who really fall in love or enjoy themselves in Hollinghurst's worlds, it seems, are the gay men. And, while I admire the elegance of his writing and the cleverness of the concept in this book, that void remains at the emotional centre of his work. It may just be me. And I remain an admirer of his writing and will read his next book too, if only to see where he goes next.
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