“Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revery of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken….”
This book was simply wonderful, with The Stranger’s Child Hollinghurst has resurrected all the elegance of a classic Evelyn Waugh novel. The story centres around the Valance family, especially on Cecil Valance, a charismatic and vicious young poet who haunts the lives of those connected to him for almost a hundred years. Hollinghurst takes us through this entire span of time and shows us glimpses of each era. We start in 1913, on the eve of war, when George Sawle brings Cecil home for the first time to meet his family. Having already snared George into a secret relationship he starts to seduce George’s younger sister Daphne with consequences that will resonate throughout the years ahead.
Hollinghurst explores many themes in this novel, among them the changing perceptions of homosexuality throughout the last century. From the secrecy and covering up of the early twentieth century to the beginning of acceptance in the sixties and finally to the triumph of complete openness in the final stage of the book in 2008, we see tolerance come a long way. In the seventies scholars start to honestly reexamine the writers and artists of the early twentieth century and to look at their relationships with other men.
The nature of biography is also a strong theme. Throughout the novel the characters are looking back to Cecil Valance and trying to reconstruct the events of his life. As we get further away from him in time things become less clear, some truths are lost and and others come to light. The remaining witnesses all have their own versions of the truth about Cecil Valance and the evidence to confirm or deny is scarce. He becomes an almost mythical figure who takes hold of people’s minds and obsesses them.
This is a beautiful and enchanting novel that feels like it could have been written by W. Somerset Maugham or Evelyn Waugh, it’s like Brideshead Revisited if that story had continued for another 40 years. I am shocked that this did not make it onto the Booker shortlist last year, it would have been a worthy winner.