Social commentary

The stranger’s child
Alan Hollinghurst
Picador
2011, pp 564
Rs. 499

A celebrated author among the British literati for his erudite exploration of the broad spectrum of psycho-social aspects of gay relationships in his novels, Hollinghurst continues his leitmotif in his latest work too.

On a summer weekend in 1913, a young, seductive, wealthy and already popular poet Cecil Valance visits the house of his secret lover George Sawle. His reckless charm captivates the heart of George’s teenage sister Daphne in whose album he writes a poem, ‘Two Acres’, his magnum opus that is destined to impact family and strangers alike for a long time to come. Centred around the life of Cecil, the book explores the subtleties of moral, literary and architectural values in the British society and their evolution over a period of almost a century.

While Cecil’s visit to the Sawles happens in the first section of the book, Daphne is married to Cecil’s brother Dudley and has moved to Corley Court, a ‘Victorian monstrosity’ in Berkshire in the second part. Corley Court is converted into a boarding school in the third section and one of its teachers, Peter Rowe, has a love affair with a young bank clerk, Paul Bryant, and both are drawn into the mystery behind the life and art of Cecil. The remaining two sections track Paul’s transformation as Cecil’’s biographer.

Hollinghurst’s staple theme of homosexuality underlies the intricate narrative web of The Stranger’s Child that is engaging with its rich narration. While the passionate love affair between Cecil and George during the 1910s and the relationship between Paul and Peter in the sixties had to be maintained with secrecy, Peter and his partner Desmond do not need to hide their love in the British society of 2008 which is more tolerant of same sex relationships.

However, as Paul interviews the contemporaries of Cecil for his biography of the poet decades after the latter is buried in the Corley Court chapel, it is revealed that even this positive social attitude doesn’t inspire them to confess about the true nature of their relationship with him. Their need to protect their own vanity, their failing memory due to old age, and the fact that they have simply outgrown the warmth of their relationship with the dead poet, muddle the truth further. Hollinghurst is impressive in his depiction of such essential but highly slippery terrains of the human mind in The Stranger’s Child and he makes it further interesting with his talent for sarcastic humour.

Hollinghurst is very generous with his characterisation, but the real action in the book always happens in the silent gaps between the bigger events. And interesting revelations about characters in the book are often made through casual remarks about them by others.

Hollinghurst’s writing is also laced with a sense of nostalgia that looks fondly at human interaction with art and architecture that transforms a society as it opens itself up to the winds of change. Over the 564 pages of his well-crafted novel, he unravels this process of transformation meticulously, though in some places tediously, to assert his talent that has been earlier established in works like The Swimming Pool Library, The Folding Star and The Spell.

The Stranger’s Child is for the connoisseurs of literature who enjoy elaborate character sketches, intricate sub plots and take pleasure in fathoming the obscure depths of the human psyche revealed through engaging fiction.

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