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The Stranger's Child

Alan Hollinghurst is to me that rare find, a novelist in total control of his material. His latest novel, The Strangers Child, stretched over most of the twentieth century and taking up the perspectives of multiple individuals as the scene moves from one era to another, tests this capacity to its utmost. The book begins in the years just before the First World War at the middle-class suburban London home of the Sowles, where the fifteen-year old Diana awaits the arrival of her slightly older brother George with a guest, an up-and-coming poet. Immediately, class comes into play as Cecil Valance, the poet, hails from minor aristocracy and has in Corley Court a much grander home to show for it. Before long the scene switches to the Valance home some years later, where Diana has married into the role of Lady Valance, though not to Cecil as we might have anticipated in the earlier pages. A third segment, set in the 1950s, brings us into the later fortunes of the Valances and the Sowles through two new sets of eyes, those of Paul Bryant and Peter Rowe. Bryant is a bank clerk with literary ambitions, Rowe a schoolteacher in what the British call a prep schoola boarding school for junior high boysnow occupying Corley Court. Again we jump, this time to London some years later as Bryant struggles unsuccessfully to extract information for his biography of Cecil Valance from the now impoverished Diana, and once more to a concluding scene at a memorial service at which Bryants shabby pretentiousness and evident literary success are equally apparent.What keeps the novel together is a poem, written by Cecil Valance on that first visit to the Sowle home. The poem is named for the house, Two Acres, and becomes a much-anthologized piece which schoolchildren learn as a matter of course. Everything else about it is matter for speculation. We never see the whole poem, though snatches of it are quoted here and there throughout the text. We are not even sure for whom it was written. Diana certainly thinks it was for her, and Cecil allows this, but our suspicion is that George may have been the real inspiration since he is surely Cecils romantic attachment. But as the century progresses both houses and the families that occupied them decay, while the poem persists. Written in a moment long ago by a long-dead minor poet, it continues just as the memory of Cecil is kept alive, less because of its or his essential significance, but just because it is there in the anthologies like Cecils white alabaster funeral monument in the chapel of Corley Court.

It is really hard to not keep thinking of Forsters Howards End as you read The Strangers Child, for the importance of houses certainly, but more so for the peculiarly English fan-dance of class-consciousness. From the beginning the Sowles are in awe of the Valances and Two Acresprobably a mansion by most standards todayis a poor thing beside the grand but apparently hideous late Victorian pile of Corley Court. As the century progresses, Hollinghurst skillfully reflect the changing picture of the social classes, though as any Brit can tell you, they didnt change much at all until two or three decades ago. This is best brought out in Paul Bryant, the bank clerk, as he tries to negotiate his way into a higher society that will never accept him. But he succeeds as the wealthy and landed others decline, which reverses the fortunes in Howards End, in which the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes find a modus Vivendi while Leonard Bastan insurance clerkfails.There is so much in this fine novel to enjoy, a lot of humor and great social commentary. In the background is Britains changing attitudes to homosexuality, which goes from the love that dare not speak its name in the opening section to a memorial service in which Bryants self-aggrandisement is upstaged by a moving testimonial offered by the dead mans gay lover. In the end Hollinghurst doesnt think much of his fellow-Brits, comparing their society to a box of Peek Freans biscuits, an analogy almost guaranteed to be lost on American audiences. The little cookies are dull and predictable, and packed oh so carefully in their tin box and presented as a wonderful tea-time treat. Only an imagination-starved culture could possibly get excited over Peek Freans, he seems to suggest. On the other hand, it says a great deal indeed that this Peek Freans culture produced Hollinghurst. His previous novel, The Line of Beauty, won Britains most prestigious Man Booker Prize. For my money this is an even better work.

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It can, I think, be a slog for a non-native to read through lengthy descriptions of life in a highly stratified society like that of England. The style, if it's done beautifully, as it was in "Brideshead Revisited", can carry one along, but if it's mostly merely workmanlike description of what's happening, it can be frustrating seeing everyone motivated by prefabricated possibilities and limited by what they are content not to think and do.I read Chapter 1 of The Stranger's Child online and I'm not sure Hollinghurst's style is enough to carry me happily through more than four hundred pages. It's certainly not offensive, but I didn't become more than casually interested in any of the three characters who make their appearance there, nor was there any thoughtful and detailed description of place and atmosphere.Could you expand a bit on what you're referring to when you say AH is "in total control of his material"?

Some of us read for pleasure, but the people who matter have higher standards.

That came off as ignorant and rude. Apologies. If there's a point there, and I think there is, it's that there are various worthwhile ways to value literature, and the literary-critical perspective is only one. And some literature is no doubt better valued by one bunch of criteria than by another. And some works can be valued at different levels, by different sorts of criteria, none more valid - or scarcely - than any other.

You got me with the Peek Freans allusion, Paul, a confection my grandmothers used to keep on hand for company, when their home-made crybabies and gingersnaps were a whole lot better. Peek Freans always looked perfect and fit just right on a saucer rim and worked colorwise with any china pattern. But you couldn't dunk them even once in a cuppa without the wet end dissolving instantly into a fine sediment in your cup, and leaving you with a tasteless stump the approximate taste and consistency of a shirt cardboard.I now have the book on my wish list.

Jean, we are agreed about Peek Freans. Couldn't you say the same about "Mackintosh's Quality Street"?In response to David, my remark about Hollinghurst's being "in total control" of his material is I suppose just my way of saying that it is a successful book. If we think about plot, character, scene, and so on, then I think this is book is totally convincing. The feel for England in the different periods of its twentieth century at which he alights is faultless, I believe (and for the later periods, I know!). The "plot," if such there is, is the trace of a person's legacy through a history of which he is not a part, and yet by way of memory and his poetry, he really is. The alabaster tomb that sits in Corley Court is a nice concrete image for the persistence of the person of Cecil in the lives of all who knew him and some who didn't, even though he wasn't a particularly impressive person or poet. And as for character, this is a novel without a central character, except the dead poet, around whom a whole host of deeply flawed and yet somehow engaging characters circulate. You can't look for heroes in this book, because there aren't any. But it works as a whole. I wouldn't leave out a single character, or moment, or even a word. It is expertly confected. That's what I mean by "in total control."

Paul, I never had any Mackintosh's, but I guess the general lesson here is: Avoid British tinned biscuits: England was not historically a meritocracy.

Thanks, Paul. Point taken - you declare that Hollinghurst's novel is artistically very sound. My take on fiction, unlike yours and the others here, isn't artistic - can't be, because I don't know the discipline. Rather, I read for the pleasure of the sound and feel of the language and the development of the story, and I look for a respectful and humane, if not humble, tale teller. On a long car trip the other day, I listened to the first half of "The Mayor of Casterbridge". It's my second hearing of those tapes, because I'm comfortable with Hardy, I like the way he thinks and talks, I trust him. Also, not incidentally, I very much like the reader. But I have no idea whether Hardy is artistically sound - that's just not a concern.

"Rather, I read for the pleasure of the sound and feel of the language and the development of the story, and I look for a respectful and humane, if not humble, tale teller."Comments in this vein on "Verdicts," IMHO, set up a fake tension between "the academy" and the "regular guy" that perpetuates the notion that literary critics and scholars are somehow living in an airy-fairy world where they apply some impossibly esoteric aesthetic to The Book. Yah, sure, there are some of those people out there, but, generally, those who teach literature or criticize it, simply try to help get a book out of a vaccuum and let it breathe by providing context and pointing out how the book fits into the cultural dialogue. For instance, I think any Catholic's contemplation of Hardy could be enlarged by considering Chesterton's observation that Hardy was "the village atheist brooding over the village idiot." I also think that ought to enlarge (or, in my case, shrink) one's estimation of Chesterton.Aren't some of those cultural dots between books worth connecting?

Indeed they are. Thanks for the Chesterton epigram. Cute, though maybe more applicable to some books than others. "Jude the Obscure", perhaps?

I hate to be nit-picky, but if this novel is so good, I am surprised the reviewer couldn't get names right. The girl is Daphne, not Diane, and her family's name is Sawle, not Sowles. Peak Freans are awful in exactly the way Jean Raber describes them. Mackintosh's are not cookies, but a mixture of wrapped chocolates and toffee of various flavors now sadly declined in quality since bought out by Nestle. Now I've got that off my chest, I appreciate all the comments and will prize the Chesterton quote: such a perspicacious man!

Be as nit-picky as you like, Trish. I should have relied less on my memory. Though I too know Mackintosh's as chocolate and toffee. Like Peak Freans, only someone with a partially starved palate could mistake them for high-class stuff, though as a kid I stuffed many of them down my own welcoming throat.

Hated the book.

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About the Author

Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley, SJ, Professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.