The first review of a shiny new year, and it has to begin with a confession.
“The Stranger’s Child” was the first book by Alan Hollinghurst that I have read, which must therefore make me rather a literary lightweight, I imagine. But what a first meeting with someone who will certainly become a favourite author.
This gorgeous, lush, oh-so-beautifully written book was a wonderful read, and one that I really and truly didn’t want to put down – however clichéd that may sound.
At the novel’s centre lie a solidly middle-class home in Stanmore and a poem that is possibly not actually all that good, yet is known to every character in the novel, over several generations.
The book opens in 1913, with the visit to the Sawle’s home “Two Acres” of their son George’s Cambridge friend, Cecil Valance. There is a distinct Edwardian country house party feel to the writing, all shimmering summer heat, simmering sexuality, and awkward class distinctions.
Yet the scenario is a cleverly inverted one.
It is the aristocrat who is visiting his solidly middle-class friend, throwing the comfortable little world of Two Acres into confusion. Cecil is clever, and outrageous, and out to make George fall even more in love with him than he already is.
When Cecil leaves, after a few days’ visit, George’s younger sister Daphne, who is rather taken with Cecil, asks him to sign her autograph book.
Instead, he writes her a poem, “Two Acres.”
The action then moves forward to 1926.
As we read, pieces of this clever literary jigsaw puzzle fall into place, after Alan Hollinghurst has made us wait awhile – perhaps in case we figure it out for ourselves. As we realise who makes up this new generation of characters, we discover that Cecil was shot in 1916, and that his poem has entered public consciousness, rather like the writings of Rupert Brooke. Not quite Rupert Brooke, but every bit as romantic for having died so young, for having been aristocratic and charming.
And thus the mythology of Cecil and “Two Acres” begins.
The novel moves forward again, through several more generations, right up until 2008.
The story line can be Wikipedia-ed, should you wish, though I wouldn’t want to spoil all the plot for you, which is skilfully woven, with each generational shift cleverly tightening the hold Cecil (or Sizzle as he is later described) and his poem have on everyone.
The book explores many themes. How we remember our history and our own memories of our past. How things enter our consciousness for ever – there isn’t a person in the book who doesn’t know the opening lines of “Two Acres” by heart, indifferent though the poem may well be. There is, of course, love and sexuality, especially homosexuality. Don’t expect graphic writing about sex – just powerfully evocative writing.
There is a wonderful description of growing old, and the dimming of passion, when the now-married George sees the marble effigy of Cecil in Corley Court, the Valance family property that is a parallel universe to George’s Stanmore.
“Had Cecil lived, he would have married, inherited, sired children incessantly. It would have been strange, in some middle-aged drawing-room, to have stood on the hearthrug with Sir Cecil, in blank disavowal of their mad sodomitical past.”
In the late 1970s, when the gauche and rather unlikeable Paul Bryant is writing his biography of Cecil, he is reading around his subject matter.
Alan Hollingurst’s description is perfect :
“…the royal-blue jacket of his huge biography, covered with praise from the leading reviewers, was now among those features that make all second-hand bookshops look inescapably the same.”
Interviewing a man who had known Cecil in his youth, Paul looks at the old man’s file of papers and letters :
“Some brittle and sun-browned newspaper cuttings, words lost at the corners and folds…”
The nature of people’s memories – especially once they have been consigned to the written word – is teasingly queried. Daphne, whose autograph book has become part of literary history, is being interviewed for Paul’s biography. She, too, has written her memoirs.
“Daphne was supposed to have a good memory, and this reputation sustained her uneasily in face of the thousands of things she couldn’t remember. People had been amazed by what she’d dredged up for her book, but much of it, as she’d nearly admitted to Paul Bryant, was – not fiction, which one really mustn’t do about actual people, but a sort of poetical reconstruction. The fact was that all the interesting and decisive things in her adult life had happened when she was more or less tight : she had little recall of anything that occurred after about 6.45, and the blur of the evenings, for the past sixty years and more, had leaked into the days as well.”
Writing and books and diaries and, of course, That Poem are the threads linking the generations in the book.
In a rare moment of critical lucidity, towards the end of the book, Daphne’s already old-man of a son is reading the poem “Two Acres” for her. She doesn’t like his rather pedantic style of reading, and tells him so, in one of my favourite lines from this all-round wonderful novel :
“Poetry…you have no idea how to read poetry. It’s not the football results…
The curfew tolls the knell of passing day : one. The plough-man homeward plods his weary way : nil.”
Published by Picador in 2011, the Indian edition of the paperback costs Rs 499.
Should you wish to buy this truly wonderful book, just click on the link below. Couldn’t be easier.