Book Review: The Stranger’s Child

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

The blurb: In the late summer of 1913 the aristocratic young poet Cecil Valance comes to stay at ‘Two Acres’, the home of his close Cambridge friend George Sawle. The weekend will be one of excitements and confusions for all the Sawles, but it is on George’s sixteen-year-old sister Daphne that it will have the most lasting impact, when Cecil writes her a poem which will become a touchstone for a generation, an evocation of an England about to change for ever.

Linking the Sawle and Valance families irrevocably, the shared intimacies of this weekend become legendary events in a larger story, told and interpreted in different ways over the coming century, and subjected to the scrutiny of critics and biographers with their own agendas and anxieties. In a sequence of widely separated episodes we follow the two families through startling changes in fortune and circumstance.

At the centre of this often richly comic history of sexual mores and literary reputation runs the story of Daphne, from innocent girlhood to wary old age. Around her Hollinghurst draws an absorbing picture of an England constantly in flux. As in The Line of Beauty, his impeccably nuanced exploration of changing taste, class and social etiquette is conveyed in deliciously witty and observant prose. Exposing our secret longings to the shocks and surprises of time, The Stranger’s Child is an enthralling novel from one of the finest writers in the English language.

My review:  This is a tricky review to write as I loved some parts of The Stranger’s Child but was left, at best, bored by others. The premise is brilliant and hooked me in completely. The Sawle family are an interesting and richly detailed bunch, I cared immediately about what happened to them and their fortunes in society and love throughout the story. However this captivating family became overlooked as other characters were introduced who were, I felt, more there for the author as a tool than for the reader.

For instance, the character of Paul Bryant, introduced halfway through the story has initially mysterious beginnings, but these are never really explained and if they are, the explanation did not arouse any kind of interest. The entire storyline that follows Paul, a very long storyline, he is the main narrator for perhaps a third or a half of the book is tiresome. His narrative voice is lacklustre. He has no real ties to the family he’s investigating, he’s writing a biography of Cecil Valance, which will have some scandalous episodes, but in his hands the social shock of that generation is left to fall quite limp. There are some shining lights in Paul’s narrative and the last characters, who’s name now escapes me, like the finding of Horace’s letters, which were very touching. But once again because they related to the main family.

The Stranger’s Child had a real medley of characters and I just couldn’t find it in my heart to love them all. I thought Daphne Sawle was fantastic, I wanted to follow her family story, not the incessant harping back to Cecil Valance. The first two historical segments held me completely captivated lasting into the third. But the last two, I think there are five, were just an add on, the mystery dissolved, the captivation of the characters evaporated in the beautiful language. It turned into more of a social historical lesson and I only reached the end because a friend told me the middle was dull but the end was better!

But the beginnings were fabulous. The 1913 setting of a house visited by a famous poet, the unspoken relationships and hidden knowledge is handled delicately and intriguingly. The post war house party at Corley Court is wonderful, as a reader you have the chance to see how the two families have interwoven, where the decay has set in and where secret knowledge has blossomed into love or guilt. I felt that there was no need to introduce Paul Bryant, an outside narrator  into these two family histories and to pull the reader away from a captivating set of characters. I can’t help but feel disappointed in a book that held me so captivated at the beginning.

5.5 out of 10 stars! ******

BUY ME! The Stranger’s Child

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