The Stranger’s Child

Robert Frost once noted – “…my poems – I should suppose everybody’s poems – are all set to trip the reader…”  The meaning of poetry may depend more on the reader than the writer.  Allan Hollinghurst uses that construct to create a family saga about a poet in The Stranger’s Child.

Hollinghurst’s long detailed story starts in Britain before  the first World War and continues to present day.  The language and thematic undercurrents reminded me of studying the British novel of manners as an undergraduate – appreciating the references to Evelyn Waugh but also cringing at the slow-paced unraveling.  Hollinghurst beautifully sets the scene with an aristocratic young man, Cecil, visiting his schoolmate’s family home at Two Acres – a comfortable but not wealthy estate.  Cecil and George are secret lovers – quietly revealed through a dinner and subsequent scene in a hammock, but, it seems, no one in the family knows or suspects – including George’s younger sister Daphne.  Cecil nurtures the young girl’s crush and leaves a poem in her journal.

Later, when Cecil dies in the war, his poem becomes famous – much like Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier.”  Only after the narrative jumps to modern times with a biographer investigating Cecil’s life, is the truth of the poem – written to George, not Daphne –  revealed.   The reader will find clues throughout, but Hollinghurst neatly wraps up the drama in the last chapter – revisiting Daphne’s marriages and dalliances, and, finally, Cecil’s bisexuality.

The book is a slow read – overdone with allusions, literary references, and pithy characters with a proper veneer.  It’s easy to get lost in the language and lose track of the real story; if you are looking for a strong plot with a satisfying resolution – you will not find it here.   The theme is reminiscent of a McEwan novel – though much longer – nothing is as it seems, and in the end, people will believe what they will – no matter what the evidence.

Hollinghurst has been compared to Henry James, with a “stylistic antiquarian style,” or maybe a poet writing in prose.  James Wood offers a thorough analysis and his thoughts on both the author and his books in The New Yorker.

Read Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” – here

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The Soldier’s Wife

If you’ve read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society,  you remember the charm and beauty of Guernsey in the Channel Islands and the determination of the islanders during the German occupation.  You’ll wonder where they are in Margaret Leroy’s The Soldier’s Wife but you will still appreciate revisiting the beauty and resilience of Guernsey.

Vivienne aborts her plan to flee Guernsey with her children to the supposed safety of London, after France falls to the Germans in World War II.  The Germans bomb the harbor and occupy the island, and a small group of German soldiers move into the house next door to Vivienne, her two young daughters, and her mother-in-law; her husband is a soldier in the war.

The occupation is relatively resistance-free; since the men have gone off to war; those left on the island are women and children – and young Turks, too young to be soldiers but old enough to rebel.  Vivienne’s initial fears give way to the seduction of the German captain living next door.  Leroy carefully documents how he insinuates himself into her life, separating his persona from his life as a soldier; he is lonely and so is she, and they become secret lovers.  For over two years, the war seems to be somewhere else. But when Vivienne’s young daughter accidentally discovers a war prisoner hiding in a nearby barn, the reality of the Germans’ brutality changes her perspective.

Vivienne finds herself torn: if she can ignore what is going on around her, she might be able to keep her family safe; if she follows her conscience, she may die – not even her German lover will be able to save her.  She begins a dangerous duplicity, sleeping with the German officer at night and feeding the German prisoner by day.

The war ends, but not before a dramatic confrontation on the island.  Vivienne and her children survive; read the last sentence carefully for a surprise.

The Soldier’s Wife is not as well written as Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary

Guernsey

and Potato Peel Society – one of my favorite books –  but, sadly, Shaffer will never write another book.  And Guernsey’s story is worth revisiting.

Related Post: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society