November 23, 2011
MarkBernstein.org
 

The Stranger’s Child

The Stranger’s Child
Alan Holinghurst

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(November 23, 2011)

This sprawling, shaggy, and superb story explores the short life and long memory of a minor war poet. Cambridge student Cecil Valance comes to spend the weekend with the family of his chum, George Sawle, who has swept Cecil off his feet. Cecil seduces George, besots his sister Daphne, and perhaps also the handsome footman who is pressed into service as his valet. In a few short years he will be swept off to war and gathered to eternity, but he leaves behind a poem that will live forever in classroom anthologies, memories that will live in gossip and memoirs, and possibly an illegitimate daughter. In time, his life and work becomes a minor literary industry,

This novel is a wonderfully-observed chronicle of gay life in greater London from 1908 to 2008. On one hand, it makes a nice bookend to A. S. Byatt’s Possession with its serious (but also wicked) send-up of the literary world. On the other, it’s a masterful counterpoint to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, a wonderfully skilled and adventurous experiment in historical fiction. Holinghurst likes people less well than Egan – or at any rate he treats his characters with less kindness – and he likes forgotten books less well the Byatt. He might be less fun, but then, he might be right.