Robert Frost once noted – “…my poems – I should suppose everybody’s poems – are all set to trip the reader…” The meaning of poetry may depend more on the reader than the writer. Allan Hollinghurst uses that construct to create a family saga about a poet in The Stranger’s Child.
Hollinghurst’s long detailed story starts in Britain before the first World War and continues to present day. The language and thematic undercurrents reminded me of studying the British novel of manners as an undergraduate – appreciating the references to Evelyn Waugh but also cringing at the slow-paced unraveling. Hollinghurst beautifully sets the scene with an aristocratic young man, Cecil, visiting his schoolmate’s family home at Two Acres – a comfortable but not wealthy estate. Cecil and George are secret lovers – quietly revealed through a dinner and subsequent scene in a hammock, but, it seems, no one in the family knows or suspects – including George’s younger sister Daphne. Cecil nurtures the young girl’s crush and leaves a poem in her journal.
Later, when Cecil dies in the war, his poem becomes famous – much like Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier.” Only after the narrative jumps to modern times with a biographer investigating Cecil’s life, is the truth of the poem – written to George, not Daphne – revealed. The reader will find clues throughout, but Hollinghurst neatly wraps up the drama in the last chapter – revisiting Daphne’s marriages and dalliances, and, finally, Cecil’s bisexuality.
The book is a slow read – overdone with allusions, literary references, and pithy characters with a proper veneer. It’s easy to get lost in the language and lose track of the real story; if you are looking for a strong plot with a satisfying resolution – you will not find it here. The theme is reminiscent of a McEwan novel – though much longer – nothing is as it seems, and in the end, people will believe what they will – no matter what the evidence.
Hollinghurst has been compared to Henry James, with a “stylistic antiquarian style,” or maybe a poet writing in prose. James Wood offers a thorough analysis and his thoughts on both the author and his books in The New Yorker.
Read Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” – here