Monday, November 14, 2011

The Stranger's Child

"With his balance of surface glitter and steely precision, irony and deep seriousness, Alan Hollinghurst is usually seen as an heir to Henry James. But he must also have had, at some crucial formative moment, a passionate infatuation with Brideshead Revisited (a book that the narrator of his first novel describes as "deplorable"). His characters evince a recurring fixation with nice houses and their glamorous, sexy inhabitants: most notably, in the case of Nick Guest, the vaguely creepy interloper who moves into the home of a Tory MP in his Booker-winning masterpiece The Line of Beauty; but Waugh's theme and his pastoral imagery echo through all of Hollinghurst's work.

Charles Ryder's words could apply to most of his protagonists: ". . . I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city."

"Of course Hollinghurst's enchanted garden is quite unlike any other seen in English literature: gay sex pastoral, it might be called, whether the unapologetically explicit action takes place in gated Notting Hill gardens, London clubs or the summery English countryside. His captivating new book – his first since The Line of Beauty seven years ago – is a country house novel that begins in a garden, in the late summer of 1913. In an inversion of the Brideshead theme, the outsider, the stranger's child, is an aristocrat visiting a middle-class home and seducing the family in it – the Sawles of Two Acres, a pleasant Victorian villa in Stanmore Hill, in the outer suburbs of London. (Later on, the Sawles invade his much grander home and repay the favour.)

"He is Cecil Valance, a mediocre Georgian poet of broad sexual tastes, who, in the course of his short visit, drinks too much, stays up all night, worships the dawn, repeatedly ravishes the love-struck younger son of the house (his Cambridge friend George), roughly kisses the daughter Daphne by the rockery, and then writes a poem praising these "Two blessed acres of English ground".

When Cecil dies during the war, the poem is extolled by Churchill, as Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier" was, and becomes famous as an evocation of a country on the brink of a great change: "A first-rate example of the second-rate poet who enters into common consciousness more deeply than many great masters," as one character puts it.

Read the full review of The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst by Theo Tait HERE.

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