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Thursday, 24 November 2011

2011 Long List - The Stranger's Child - Alan Hollinghurst

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
Wilfred Owen – Anthem for Doomed Youth – September – October 1917

As Julian Barnes reminded me in “A Sense of an Ending”, memories are not quite what they seem, however I distinctly recall having to study Wilfred Owen’s poetry in a boy only Private High School back in the 1970’s and at the time I surely thought “what use will this have in later life?” Well after 30 odd years I finally have a reference point of reading World War One poetry and it was put to some use when making my way through the readable (2011’s catchphrase) tome “The Stranger’s Child”. Does a novel become a tome once it hits 564 pages?

I must admit I did approach this novel with trepidation, given its size and the fact that I have previously found some of Hollinghurst’s novels a slog. As my edition’s inner sleeve announces:

In the late summer of 1913 the aristocratic young poet Cecil Valance comes to stay at “Two Acres”, the home of close Cambridge friend George Sawle. The weekend will be one of excitements and confusions for all the Sawles, but it is on George’s sixteen-year-old sister Daphne that it will have the most lasting impact, when Cecil writes her a poem which will become a touchstone for a generation, an evocation of an England about to change forever.

As each Part is introduced this novel jumps across decades, generations and characters, covering 70/80 years with the poet Cecil and the Sawles, George and the “sister” Daphne being the “common thread”. This novel would have 100’s of characters, some minor, some trivial, some you think are minor who suddenly become the centre of something wider, others petering out – very much mirroring our own lives and relationships (are our “best ever friends” at kindergarten still our “friends?). This is a monumental work where minute details are required (and added) and although early on I found them someone laborious I was entranced, even though at times confused (which one is Wilfrid again?). The raft of subject material: biographers, musicians, artists, book collectors and of course poets add a many layered mystical feel. I’m a person reading a book about someone researching a biographical book about a book writer, who knows a book collector….

She felt something similar, but worse in a way, about hundreds and hundreds of books she’d read, novels, biographies, occasional books about music and art – she could remember nothing about them at all, so it seemed rather pointless even to say she had read them; such claims were a thing people set great store by but she hardly supposed they recalled any more than she did. Sometimes a book persisted as a coloured shadow at the edge of sight, as vague and unrecapturable as something seen in the rain from a passing vehicle: looked at directly it vanished altogether. Sometimes there were atmospheres, even the rudiments of a scene: a man in an office looking over Regent’s Park, rain in the streets outside – a little blurred etching of a situation she would never, could never, trace back to its source in a novel she had read some time, she thought, in the past thirty years.

With views and opinions by many different characters, over numerous decades, this gives you the fading memory laden questioning from many layers feel – what is the truth here and will it ever be explained? And who is the stranger’s child? And as I have noted in some of my previous Booker Reviews from the 2011 long list there are similarities to another couple of works this year… in this case, Barnes’ “A Sense of an Ending” and Barry’s “On Canaan’s Side”.

To feel engrossed enough to agree with great passages, and then suddenly realise that you are reading a work of fiction, is a great achievement and although a number of characters I didn’t personally feel attached to, I was still entranced by the major part a “minor poet” who didn’t live that long, could play in innumerable lives.

All up I thoroughly enjoyed this book and now having finally completed the long list for 2011, I can firmly state that I would have included this in my short list.

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