14 Aug 2012

The Poet, His Girl and Her Brother

Ever since reading "The Line of Beaty", I have been an avid admirer of the beautiful prose and the twisted characters of the author Alan Hollinghurst. With regards to the prose, at times, it is more like poetry. He writes the way I wish I could. The way most authors wish they could. As a first class magician he takes normal words, shuffles them and transforms them into art, making us believe that it is not about skill or talent but about pure magic. In "The Stranger's Child", Alan Hollinghurst has taken this gift for magical writing, honed it, fine-tuned it, so that we are left with not a book but a work of art. However, as magical as the writing is, the story is even better. 

 In 1913 George Sawle is home from Cambridge on a visit and with him, he has a friend, the semi-famous poet Cecil Valance who, it turns out, is more than just a friend. At George's childhood home Two Acres, his mother and sister welcome Cecil and for the 16-year-old sister Daphne, the meeting with Cecil comes to change her life. At the end of the weekend, Cecil writes a poem, a romantic celebration of love and the English garden, in Daphne's autograph book and in the decades following, this poem comes to symbolize England on the brink of war while shaping the destinies of several of the characters in the novel. 

Hollinghurst's ability to make small parts of the history of England come to live is astonishing. The first story takes place in 1913, in a still innocent Edwardian England, full of fragrant country gardens. The next takes us to the 1920s, the innocence has been stolen by a World War and families are left amputated as the trenches in France claimed the lives of their sons. Then years pass and we are in the late 1960s, the second World War still fresh in memory and the English still feeling the pinch. Then a short jump to the late 1970s where the world has changed and the fortunes of the great and the good have transformed - gone are the servants and the grand houses, surburbia is on the rise.  

It is without doubt one of the best books I've read this year. Actually more than just this year, in a long long time. It is an absolutely wonderful story, told with elegance, humour and a feeling for passing of time and the evolving of history. 
The characters are interesting and easy to sympathize with and every time the story jumped to another era, I found myself searching the pages for my favourite characters, eager to find out what had happened to them. It's immmensely satisfying to follow the characters for so many years, even the ones whose development disappoints and whose flaws become more and more apparent. For me, that is one of the real strenghts of Hollinghurst's book - that he keeps the reader engaged (to the point of blocking out the rest of the world) without losing the integrity of the characters and the story.

Read it if: You haven't already read it.


  1. I really need to get to this one. I was planning on reading it last year when it came out but somehow never got around to it.

  2. I can only recommend it, it is really good!