Monday, January 30, 2012

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst, a highly acclaimed, Man Booker winning author, was on the 2010 Man Booker longlist and is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.  At 551 pages (UK edition), it is a weighty novel that took a lot of work to get through.  After several attempts to get through the book, I can say that I appreciated the writing, the character development, the language and the arch of the novel, but I don't plan to read it again.  It was worth reading but be ready to work.

In 1913, George Sawle brings  his aristocratic college classmate, Cecil Valance, to his modest home.  Sawle is smitten by Valance, as is Sawle's younger sister, Daphne.  On that short visit, Valance, a young poet, composes a short poem about the Sawle's home, "Two Acres."  Valance is killed in the war (World War I).  End section one of the book.  In the next section, Hollinghurst fast-forwards by about fifteen years, regathers certain of the characters and examines where they are in life.  This formula repeats several times.  The touchstone of each section is Valance, his poem and his relationships with those he touched in his truncated life.

Through the novel, Hollinghurst examines memory, what is buried and how it is reshaped.  He also examines the subtleties of class in Britain and what it is to be gay during various periods of the 20th century.  The novel is majestic.  As a reader, it takes a lot of work to engage with Hollinghurst.  For example, the characters reappear in different sections of the book but they are older, their names often change (though multiple marriages) and life's experiences have changed them.  Of course that is how life works but it requires the reader's strict attention to the details. Hollinghurst's writing is engaging.  He captures conversation, especially large groups, and tone beautifully.  While there is no explicit sex, sexual themes are pervasive.

This is not a light, easy read.  If you are up for a relatively rewarding challenge, give Hollinghurst a shot.

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