The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst’s account of a fictional British poet martyred by World War I, initially approaches its subject with as much delicacy as if he were real. That’s to his detriment. When given enough space, Cecil Valance, the poet whose legacy is developed in Hollinghurst’s fifth novel, loses his heroic sheen. Instead, he reflects a world that went on without him.
A young British aristocrat, Cecil visits his friend George Sawle over their summer break from college at the Sawles’ comparatively modest home, presided over by the Widow Sawle and her straitlaced oldest son. Cecil embarrasses the Sawles with his praise for their humble home, leaving behind a poem in George’s sister Daphne’s autograph book (firing suspicions that they had a fling, and covering for George and Cecil’s real trysts). A dozen years later, Cecil has been killed in the Great War and Daphne is unhappily married to his brother—but schoolchildren everywhere memorize his work “Two Acres,” composed at the Sawles’, while a biographer sniffs around his ancestral home, looking for a story. After the war, the Valances’ mansion becomes a boarding school, and Two Acres an apartment house, but a new generation of readers questions whether Cecil’s work represents the innocence of pre-war Britain, or a false idyll covering for something more sinister.
Hollinghurst has invested himself as a lead chronicler of 20th-century gay life in Britain, specializing in the personal, intimate confrontations taking place outside the historical frame. His view in The Stranger’s Child has widened to encompass the men his earlier heroes looked to as models of conduct, only sinking comfortably into the present in the final chapter. Still, Hollinghurst builds his scenes deliberately without bringing them to too fine a point about the ways in which Cecil’s readers bracket his secrets with the freedoms they take for granted—particularly with the entrance of two competing biographers whose theories about him take a back seat to their own desires.
Stranger’s Child suffers a little, particularly early on, from the too-brief appearance of the man around whose short life the other characters orbit, willingly or not. In his absence, Cecil is a vessel for everyone else’s views of Victorians, Oxfordians, poets, or young gay men, but there are no clear indicators as to the man he actually was, and those views supplant the poet’s intrigues as worthy of study. Once The Stranger’s Child lets go of the man in favor of the legend, the swirls of Hollinghurst’s dreamy prose resolve into a portrait grander than that of one person alone.