ALAN HOLLINGHURT'S AMBITIOUS, century-spanning saga, The Stranger’s Child, explores the artistic legacy of Cecil Valance, a middling English poet. Opening with Cecil’s 1913 visit to Two Acres, the modest home of his fellow Cantabrigian and lover, George Sawle, the novel traces the aftershocks of Cecil’s interactions with the Sawle family, especially George’s spry, enamored teenage sister, Daphne. Through the years, the poem Cecil writes in honor of the “two blessèd acres of English ground” ripples through the imagination of schoolboys and statesmen alike. The title is drawn from “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” Alfred Lord Tennyson’s elegy for a friend, and signals the nostalgia and admiration that drive Cecil’s biographers once he falls victim to a World War I sniper. The novel repeatedly pits such sentimentalism against the persistent degradation over the following decades of everything from characters’ bodies to architectural façades, suggesting that Hollinghurst’s objective is actually a wry, subversive critique of memorialization. When we look too closely at the past, trying to preserve its beauty or breach its secrets, it eludes us. Commemoration not only fails to preserve the past, it dissolves memory: in grasping at tradition, it speeds the irrevocable transition to modernity.
Hollinghurst’s previous novel, the Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty, set in Thatcherite London, chronicles in luminous, torrid prose the love affairs of Nick Guest, a young arriviste using a wealthy Tory politician’s home as a pied-à-terre. Stylistic differences aside, though, these novels have similar messages. The Line of Beauty takes its title from the ogee curve, formed by the convergence of two S-shaped arcs; for Nick, the undulation of a lover’s hips mirrors this architectural motif. On the surface, it’s an arresting figure. But it’s also a dangerous one; those who come too close to its ideal face the growing menace of AIDS, first named and pathologized during these years.
The Stranger’s Child adapts this vision, but leavens and tempers it with the modesty and prudery appropriate to its historical moment. Views of the male body are mediated and distorted. Cecil and George’s “mad vertiginous adventure” is set in a pastoral idyll of late-Edwardian England: they only know each other’s bodies in the partial obscurity of the forest, their features shrouded by leaves and shadows, their emotions cloaked in shyness. George, mystified by “the unseen jostling of different magics,” feels “he would never stop taking [Cecil] in. He loved the beautiful rightness of his bearing, that everyone saw, and he loved all the things that fell short of beauty, or redefined it, things generally hidden.” Cecil finds George nymph-like, “some shy sylvan creature, unused to the prying eyes of men. Perhaps you’re a hamadryad.” George retorts, “Hamadryads are female … which I think you can see I’m not.” “I still can’t really see,” Cecil returns, before “pranc[ing] down the leafy slope like a satyr, sun-burnt and sinewy calves and forearms darkly hairy.”
Where George sees little, Daphne, aware of the “hint of a mystery” and “secret throb of color,” sees even less. She’s more innocent than,...