By Alan Hollinghurst
Parul Sehgal, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Nov. 1, 2011
“The Stranger’s Child,” Alan Hollinghurst’s first book since “The Line of Beauty,” the 2004 Man Booker Prize winner, is a sly and ravishing masterpiece. The novel skips with indecent ease through 100 years of British political and literary history, concealing its mighty ambition in charm and louche wit.
It’s a devastating history of gay love, erasure and resilience. It’s also a ripping yarn, a simple love (or rather, lust — Hollinghurst’s characters are too arch, too Wildean for love) story as literary whodunit: “Brideshead Revisited” crossed with “Possession.”
The book begins in 1913, on the eve of World War I. Cecil Valance (modeled on Rupert Brooke) is a young poet and guest at the home of his lover and Cambridge classmate, George Sawle.
Rich, reckless, coming into fame, Cecil glamours the family — from the valet to George’s 16-year-old sister, Daphne. He presents her with a poem-in-progress, “Two Acres,” which, in actuality, is a covert love poem to George. Cecil goes to the front and makes his name on his ecstatic poems from the trenches. He dies, still young and beautiful, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, and thus begin the Sawle and Valance family troubles.
They’re forever “shackled to old Cecil.” Daphne and Cecil had exchanged some grim love letters –“Tell me, Daphne, will you be my widow?” She becomes widely regarded as Cecil’s great love and the inspiration for “Two Acres,” the most famous (and most misconstrued) poem in England.
Misreadings mushroom until the book arrives at the present: The two families have fallen into declining fortunes and a clenched-jaw peace in Cecil’s shadow, when a biographer, Paul Bryant, certain that the “Two Acres” was addressed to Daphne’s brother, begins interviewing the surviving Valances and Sawles. For “smut essentially,” sniffs Daphne, now shabby and withered and a bit mad. He turns up a raft of secrets.
Around this central story ripple countless others: shadowy affairs and abortive seductions among gay minor characters. Behind the bloom of Hollinghurst’s prose, another project quietly unfurls.
As much as “The Stranger’s Child” is about England and Englishness, about war, about the impulse toward biography, it’s profoundly and unmistakably a secret literary history. It’s the tapestry of British literature turned around to reveal its seams, to reveal that the history of the British novel has been the history of gay people in Britain.
It’s Oscar Wilde and A.E. Housman, E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf and the entire Bloomsbury set (name checked extensively in the book), a history — as Cecil’s is — of invisibility, secrecy and scandal, bowdlerization, censure and frenetic posthumous outing. This pr cis might be stuffy; trust that the book never is.
“The Stranger’s Child” restores gay life and love to the vibrant center of the British novel without a hint of solemnity or righteousness, only supple prose and a sodden, fun bunch of obviously, gloriously gay characters. Seldom has literary restitution proved so pleasurable.