When I began The Stranger’s Child, I was immediately turned off by the seemingly main character, Daphne; but I gave Alan Hollinghurst’s eloquent writing the benefit of the doubt and kept going. His descriptive style of writing greatly added to every scene and every moment whereas other authors’ descriptions tend to take away and distract. And I’m thankful that I read this novel, because it was a beautiful tale.
The book isn’t truly about Daphne (thank goodness!) but is actually all about Cecil Valance, a budding poet and bisexual playboy (who tended more towards the homosexual trysts). We meet Cecil only briefly in the early 1900s when he visits his secret boyfriend George (Daphne’s brother) at his home for the weekend and pens his infamous poem “Two Acres.” But Cecil’s life is cut dramatically short when he dies in the first World War. However, as characters later note, Cecil’s early death makes him more immortal than had he continued to live his life.
Over the next century, we see small cross-sections of time in which Cecil’s importance dominates (a family gathering for the 10th anniversary of his death, a young man’s quest to learn the truth about his life to write his biography). But the novel shows us more than just Cecil. We see how the social classes of England evolved over the decades, and we follow the literary careers of those close to Cecil. The switch from Daphne’s perspective (she quickly becomes a bitter and crotchety woman with plenty of secrets to hide) to young gay man, Paul Bryant, was the turning point for me as a reader. His more honest and caring attitude was a nice relief against the harshness of Daphne.
But what truly kept me engaged was Hollinghurst’s exploration of homosexuality in England over the last century. It spans from secret trysts in the woods to openly cruising at a memorial service (at which there are leather daddies, no less). It’s that insight into the world of homosexuality that we never truly got from E.M. Forster (whom Hollinghurst is clearly channeling in the pre-War segment of his book).
Watching the evolution of England and how Cecil continues to impact those people (along with the interconnectedness of the characters) makes this a truly remarkable read. I’m now eager to dig into the other more famous novels by Hollinghurst.