The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
Some of you may remember I bought this book from Waterstone’s at the end of August, but if not, that’s all you need to know. I started it a few nights ago after finishing Things Fall Apart and after a slightly slow first chapter, I’m enjoying it tremendously so far. However, I’m only on chapter nine, so I thought I’d post my thoughts and predictions now, to see how they change as I read further. This way, I’ll be able to look back with yes-I-was-right glee, or a how-did-I-get-it-so-wrong shaking of my head.
The plot so far… As yet, no child has been had. The stranger, however, seems to be Cecil Valance, George Sawle’s charismatic poet friend from Cambridge, who has come to stay at the Sawle family home of ‘Two Acres’. I should probably also mention that the book is set in the summer of 1913 (just before the breakout of the First World War). George’s father is dead and his mother, Freda, is being courted by a man called Harry. George is not Freda’s only child- she also has Hubert (or Huey), who is in his twenties and seems slightly socially inept, and sixteen-year-old Daphne, who seems to be developing a crush on Cecil.
My predictions… My first prediction, which I actually gathered from the blurb, is that Daphne will bear Cecil’s child. However, things are more complicated than that. It is being implied that Cecil and George are having a sexual relationship, through numerous clues- George placing his hand on Cecil’s back, their game of footsie under the table, the groans and giggles which Daphne hears coming from George and Cecil whilst they are in the hammock and the semen on Cecil’s bedsheets. Cecil does seem, however, to be flirting ever-so-slightly with Daphne, but this could just be her wishful thinking. I think that it’s possible that Cecil is bisexual and is attracted to both brother and sister. I also predict (with a little help from the novel’s title) that Cecil will impregnate Daphne, which means that he is likely to come between her and her brother in a rather catastrophic way. I also do not see Cecil’s relations with either party lasting, but predict that he may return years later to visit his child. Yet this may not be the case- perhaps Cecil and Daphne will marry, to cover up his relations with George which were illegal at the time. As well as this, I have not forgotten the imminent World War- I think there is a chance that either Hubert or Cecil will die in the war. Either way, I think that the Sawle family’s happy days are numbered, and they are about to be divided with no chance of reconciliation.
Other thoughts… I can’t help noticing the novel’s similarity with Ian McEwan’s Atonement (although I am enjoying this much more). It is the story of an upper class family, who are perhaps not quite as upper class as they’d like to think, about to face a World War (although of course in Atonement this is the Second World War rather than the first). There is also some kind of forbidden love, in this case George and Cecil rather than Robbie and Cecilia. Ooh, see, even two of the names are similar! In addition, there is a somewhat foolish girl in her mid-teens who is dabbling in flirting with an older man- Daphne with Cecil in The Stranger’s Child and Lola with Paul Marshall in Atonement. Indeed, Paul Marshall has a somewhat similar role to Cecil in the earlier chapters of the book, as a wealthy stranger and a friend of a male family member in his twenties. A father figure is also absent from both the Tallis and the Sawle households, in one case due to choice and in another due to death. Both families have three children, the oldest of which being a boy and the youngest a girl, the only difference here being the ages and the sex of the middle child. There are also servants present in the stories- Danny Hardman looks after Paul Marshall in Atonement and Jonah takes care of Cecil in The Stranger’s Child. Not only this, the writing style is also very similar; elaborate with detailed description of minute feelings, barely noticeable social interactions and changing perceptions. However, there is also a difference between the two; Atonement took this too far and became what I found a rather pretentious novel, trying to describe sensations that could not be described. Although Atonement is written with considerable skill on McEwan’s part and I am aware that the minute detail is a reflection on Briony’s need for order, I feel that it went too far and made the story seem all perception and no plot. Of course, it is a rather postmodernist work so again I can appreciate the reasons for this, but it didn’t make for an enjoyable read. The Stranger’s Child however, so far, gets the balance right; it’s sophisticated but the plot keeps me compelled too and I can’t wait to find out what happens- and see if my predictions were right!
Have YOU read The Stranger’s Child? What did you think? I’d love to know, so please write a comment!