“The Stranger’s Child” by Alan Hollinghurst— Time and Memory

Hollinghurst, Alan. “The Stranger’s Child”, Knopf, 2011.

Time and Memory

Amos Lassen

Without question, Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel has been one of the most anticipated books of gay literature and I was lucky to get a copy from the United Kingdom and have an advance look at the book that will not be published in America until October, 2011.

Hollinghurst is the acclaimed author of “The Swimming Pool Library”, “The Folding Star”, “The Spell” and “The Line of Beauty”, the Man Booker Prize winner and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is also the recipient of other major literary awards.

As can be expected, the book is beautifully written and looks at the changing moral landscape of the world. This is an epic novel that pulls you in and holds you tight. Te theme is about how time and memory affect us and it covers the years from 1913 to 2008 and is filled with wit and irony. We read of the decline of England through stories of friendships and encounters and we sense the immediacy of the theme. Cecil Valance, our hero, had a short life and died in war. Now his reputation was being formulated posthumously and it is memory that must be relied upon so that he gets his due. Cecil and George had been lovers but because of the times they carried out they lived their lives secretly. Nonetheless, they were influential but it took time and in many cases their union became the unconscious pattern or others. Such relationships were, for the most part, shrouded in secrecy, whereas today things are very different.

Hollinghurst has written his novel in the tradition of those that came before him, notably E.M. Forster with the intricate plot structure and the comedic sections about class, art, sexuality and politics. Valance is remembered but that memory becomes myth filled with incorrect assumptions and lies. The novel is set in Corley Court, a Victorian home of the Valance family and it also becomes a character in the novel. It is through the house that we learn of characters and their frailties and obsessions. It is dialogue that moves the plot forward and it is filled with irony.

One reviewer says that this is “Brideshead Revisited” in reverse. The world that we get is the world of satire. The villain is time and as time passes, we all know too well, things change. Here is realism with detail and it is wonderful to see the melancholy that exists  tempered with humor. Following the lives of two aristocratic families, desire is everywhere and mortality and mythology unite with aesthetics and history.

It has been seven years since we last heard from Hollinghurst and we see here what he was doing. In 1913, George Sawle brought Cecil Valance to his family’s home near London or a weekend. George and Cecil were classmates at Cambridge and George was infatuated with Cecil as his sixteen year old sister, Daphne. Cecil regales both with stories of Corely Court, the estate in the country which he will inherit but he also writes something in Daphne’s autograph album that will have long range results and change their lives. It was a poem that will later be recited by every British schoolchild after Cecil is killed in the War. With the poem came stories and as they spread, secrets are buried until years later the truth is discovered by a biographer who threatens to tell all. We see the power of desire and the ability of the heart to make its own history.

It is so good to have a new Hollinghurst novel and this book is going to be very big. It is already claiming fame in England and come October it will do the same here in America.

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