Family history is a strange thing. It is amazing how details alter in the telling of any story; facts become fiction, half-truths are sworn testimony, half lies become the litany of record.
Add to any series of events characters larger than life, morals shaped and morphed by time, perceptions purloined by profit and the truth itself becomes a casualty to the passing of time.
Britain just before the dark hours of the First World War — that war to end all wars — was a tapestry of gentlemen, class society, notions of Victorian charm, manners and mores which spilt over in hushed tones into those 1913 grand Georgian times. It was a society where all had a place and there was a place for all — even if it was in the hallowed halls of Cambridge, in secret societies where the acts of furtive gentlemen were viewed as nothing more than the misspent idleness of youth.
It was a time when the spoken word was laced in language of literature, where poets were revered, where the new music of gramophones was a source of after-dinner activities as much as cigars, port and the ladies' and gentlemen's drawing rooms.
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This is the noble England which Alan Hollinghurst paints so carefully in The Stranger's Child, his first book in seven years.
It is a densely written work, its words and sentences woven as tight as the society which binds this pre-war generation.
A poem is written by Cecil Valance, a poem which becomes the watchword of a generation as its falls to the horrors of Flanders fields.
The Stranger's Child is the story of two families, for ever entwined by the events of one weekend at Two Acres. Valance immortalises the gardens in a lazily scrawled entry in the Daphne Sawle's autograph book. But what happened on that weekend will haunt the Sawles and Valances, reaching out through generations as the literary world tries to understand the context of the poem's every comma.
Make no mistake, The Stranger's Child is not an easy read. Every sentence is endowed with beautifully crafted language which needs to be savoured slowly. Hollinghurst won the Man Booker award in 2004 for The Line of Beauty and The Stranger's Child follows in that same gifted tone. Pity it is that it has taken Hollinghurst seven years to craft his latest work.
Through separate sections — virtual novellas within the work itself — Hollinghurst tells the story of the changing fortunes of each family, with the ageing Daphne being a constant throughout. But her own perceptions of what happened that late autumnal weekend in 1913 were coloured by the illusions of an innocent love between an impressionable 16-year-old and a Cambridge scholar more worldly that she could have imagined. Changing times and changing circumstances, where morals are muddied and money made and lost, influences our perceptions of the world. But who will speak for the past? And those who do, what are their motives?
Every family has secrets which need to stay within the confines of its four walls. When those four walls are detailed and enshrined in a poem which falls from the lips of schoolchildren, it is hard to protect those secrets.
Hollinghurst's mastery is in his subtleties, the elegance of expression, the understanding of the human psyche and how the process of change alters us all.
The Stranger's Child, for all of its thought-provoking moments, is best read slowly, over a long summer. It is also a book to which I shall return in some years in the future, to see if the march of time has altered my views. How right will Hollinghurst be?