Over the past century the British fixation with the houses of the upper class has provided an almost too-familiar setting and literary device for narratives about class, English decline and, not infrequently, the undercurrent of homosexuality in the chronicle of English social, political and artistic life.
In "The Stranger's Child," Alan Hollinghurst's first novel since winning the 2004 Man Booker Prize for "The Line of Beauty," the author readily acknowledges the numerous English country-house novels that serve as touchstones for the first two of five sections of this intricate, century-spanning book.
The resulting literary pastiche is amusing, one allusion leading to another: the most overt nods are to "Brideshead Revisited," "Maurice" and "Howards End," with echoes of more modern examples of the genre, especially "Atonement" and "The Remains of the Day."
However, after a while all the nodding and winking begin to wear thin, especially as these long sections are written in period, Jamesian style, with an overabundance of smirks, sly glances and veiled remarks. I was glad that the third section leaped from 1926 to 1967, where the language lightens perceptibly while remaining drenched in irony.
The book opens in the halcyon days leading up to World War I, with a weekend visit by Cecil Valance, minor poet and minor aristocrat, to the suburban middle-class home of his Cambridge friend and secret lover, George Sawle. The home, quaintly named Two Acres, neatly sets up the social hierarchy between the friends; the estate to which Cecil is heir, Corley Court, is a "stately pile," situated on many more than two acres, the subject of most of his poetry.
This visit serves as the defining event in "The Stranger's Child" and introduces us to the two families and two houses that will serve as the nexus for the complex series of encounters, relationships and striking changes in fortune over the next 90-plus years.
George and Cecil's passionate relationship is never acknowledged by the (willfully?) oblivious Sawle family. One character archly describes the pair as "very attached to each other ... in the Cambridge way."
No matter. George's 16-year-old sister, Daphne, immediately joins in her brother's infatuation with the glamorous Cecil (it's no surprise to learn that he is known as "Sizzle"), who has everything one could want: a title, a budding reputation as a poet, and a big house with "jelly mould domes" on the ceiling, as titillating to Daphne as any of Cecil's personal attributes.
At the end of the weekend, Cecil writes a sentimental poem titled "Two Acres," ostensibly for Daphne, but in fact celebrating the weekend with George, with the more pointed verses discarded in the wastebasket. After Cecil is killed in battle in 1916, the poem, praising these "Two blessed acres of English ground," gains great poignancy, is quoted by Winston Churchill and enters the canon of iconic poems to be recited by generations of English school children.
Changing perceptions of Cecil's poetry are at the heart of this novel, a meditation on the mutability of personal and group memories. It explores how aging recollections and evolving societal norms shape one another, and in the process refashion tastes and reputations -- literary, architectural and sexual. Over the years, critics and biographers will approach the work and the life of the poet with their own agendas, and soon myths are dismantled, secrets revealed.
Neither the house at Two Acres nor Corley Court is spared the insults of time. Ultimately, both are leveled, but not before Corley Court is converted to a prep school, its out-of-fashion moldings covered by modern drop ceilings. The fates of these properties mirror the decline in fortunes of the individuals who derived their identities from living in them.
Mr. Hollinghurst has been criticized for overreliance on explicit depictions of gay sex in his earlier novels. He takes a different tack here. While it is true that almost every male character is gay or bisexual, in most cases the sex takes place offstage, often clothed in euphemism ("a bit of Oxford style.") The focus is on placing homosexual friendships and love affairs within the frame of the English cultural tradition, and chronicling the progression from the secrecy and hypocrisy of Cecil and George's relationship to the civil partnerships in the final sections of the book.
"The Stranger's Child" is something of a literary performance, but its perceptive insights about the inexorable passage of time make it worth the price of admission.
Eileen Weiner lives and writes in Pittsburgh and works at Global Links.