I honestly don’t know what to think of this book – I am not sure whether or not I like it. Alan Hollinghurst is without a doubt a very gifted writer – his talent for description is beyond reproach. However, it took me 12 painful month to re-read the 560 pages that make up The Stranger’s Child. Why, I am not sure. Considering that the underlying theme of the novel – the distortion of history, biography and memory – is right up my alleyway. The reason I had to re-read the book is that I am missing 2 credit points to be able to finish my masters degree. My lecturer kindly agreed to give them to me if I write a short essay on one of the Hollinghurst books we discussed in class.
Of all the books we discussed I liked this one the most although it was the one I paid the least amount of attention to as I was already too busy writing my thesis on Carlyle and Emerson.
As you might have guessed already the novel’s title refers to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam Part CI “And year by year the landscape grow Familiar to the stranger’s child” and by centring the book around the effect of a rather minor character who appears only shortly in the first part of the novel, this book wants to prove to the reader that “year by year our memory” of a person’s biography fades.
As already mentioned, the entire novel centres – directly and indirectly – on Cecil Valance, the heroic poet, who comes to Two Acres in 1913 visiting his lover’s family. He is a stranger who not only disrupts the Sawle’s family life with his presence but also will have a lasting effect on it for generations to come. The reason for this is the erroneous dedication of his poem Two Acres to his lover’s sister Daphne. Considering the setting of this part, it is obvious that he could not make public that the poem is indeed about his relationship to Daphne’s brother George. The rest of the book is based on the effect of this misunderstanding. After Cecil’s death in WWI Daphne marries his younger brother Dudley who returns injuried and traumatised from the battlefield. This loveless marriage leads to various affairs on either side and the reader meets – over the years – a different Daphne (Sawle, Valance, Revel, Jacobs) and various members of her extended family. The 3rd and 4th part is about Paul Bryant, a former bank clerk and writer, who is determined to write a proper biography of Cecil Valance by uncovering his homosexusality and by revealing to whom the poem was actually dedicated.
So, here I am just having finished another reading of this novel. Unsure of my feelings towards it. The story is good, the theme intriguing and I still cannot bring myself to officially like the book. One reason, I think, might be this talent of Hollinghurst for description and detail – I simply got bored in between and had to put it aside. The novel would have benefitted from being only half of what it is today. It contains entire chapters that describe only one scene. Even the most interesting part of the book (Part II Revel) is more or less a 120 page long description of one party. The last part which is only 2 chapters long is the most disappointing one despite the fact that through it’s open ending it further highlights the novel’s theory on distorted memory. The reader obviously knows more about the truth than the majority of the characters or definitely arrives at a closer estimation of what might be the truth but at the end even the reader knows mostly rumors or to say it with Daphne’s words “Smut, essentially”.