Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Stranger's Child lacks passion, purpose

Book 130: The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst is a simulacrum of a great novel -- exquistely written, yet curiously absent any passion or purpose.

Perhaps the novel fails because its central character, Cecil Valance, is on stage all too briefly. We meet Cecil in the opening section of the book, by section two he is already off stage, killed by a sniper in World War I.

In that opening section, Cecil, a promising young poet, arrives at Two Acres, the home of the Sawle family. Cecil and George, the second of three Sawle children, are students at Cambridge. They are lovers.

During the course of Cecil's visit, Daphne, the youngest of the Sawle children, asks him to sign her autograph book. After he has departed, it is discovered that Cecil has scrawled a poem across several of the books' pages. Daphne is convinced it was written for her. George knows he is its inspiration.

The poem, Two Acres, becomes Cecil Valance's best known work. It will be memorized by a couple of generations of British schoolchildren and then forgotten as Cecil is destined to be regarded as a "first-rate second-rate poet."

Section two jumps forward a decade or more. Cecil is dead as is Hubert, the oldest of the Sawle children. George has married a humorless woman. Daphne is married to Cecil's brother. They have two children.

The novel continues to leap forward in time, finally arriving in the present day. As the story advances, the Sawle family recedes into the background as does Cecil's reputation.  New characters are introduced, including one grows up to write a controversial biography of Cecil Valance.

Comparisons to Julian Barnes' Booker-prize winning Sense of An Ending are inevitable. Barnes gives his narrator, and the reader, an emotional jolt with a surprise revelation that casts a magnetic influence over his entire novella and that commands a reader's musings weeks after the books has been completed and set aside.

Hollinghurst's novels lacks such resonance and reverberation. The novel, like the fictional Cecil's poetry, is quickly forgotten. 

The Stranger's Child is like an elaborately painted eggshell. Beautiful on the exterior, but its interior entirely lacking in substance.

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