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The Stranger's Child (June 2011) is the fifth novel by Alan Hollinghurst. The book tells the story of a minor poet, Cecil Valance, who is killed in the First World War. In 1913 he visits a Cambridge friend, George Sawle, at the latter's home in Stanmore, Middlesex. While there Valance writes a poem entitled 'Two Acres', about the Sawle's house and addressed, ambiguously, either to George himself or to George's younger sister, Daphne. The poem goes on to become famous and the novel follows the changing reputation of Valance and his poetry in the following decades.
The phrase "the stranger's child" comes from Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem In Memoriam A.H.H.: "And year by year the landscape grow / Familiar to the stranger's child." In an interview with The Oxonian Review in 2012, Hollinghurst commented of the epigraph that "[t]he music of the words is absolutely wonderful, marvellously sad and consoling all at once. It fitted exactly with an idea I wanted to pursue in the book about the unknowability of the future".
The Stranger's Child consists of five sections, each set at a different period:
Two Acres, set in 1913 as Cecil Valance visits George Sawle's home, has sexual relations with George, meets George's sister, Daphne, and writes the poem 'Two Acres'.
Revel, set in 1926 as Daphne, now married to Cecil's brother Dudley, and other family and friends discuss their memories of Cecil with Sebastian Stokes, a friend who has been asked by Cecil's mother to write a biography of him. The biography does not mention his being gay.
Steady, Boys, Steady!, set in 1967, which introduces Peter Rowe and Paul Bryant. Rowe teaches at Corley Court, the Valance's former family home which has since been turned into a boarding school. Bryant works at a bank under the management of Leslie Keeping, the son in law of Daphne Sawle, and Bryant meets her at her 70th birthday. Bryant and Rowe also meet at the birthday party and begin a sexual relationship. Both are interested in Cecil Valance.
Something of a Poet, set in 1979-80, by which time Bryant has become a writer and is working on a biography of Cecil, meeting Dudley, George and Daphne to find out information for his book.
The Old Companions, set in 2008, beginning at a memorial service for Peter Rowe where Paul Bryant and Nigel Dupont, a former student of Rowe's at Corley Court, both speak. Rob Salter, a book dealer who knew Rowe, also attends and becomes interested in the lives and works of the Valance-Sawle set. By 2008, British attitudes towards homosexuality have evolved, and Cecil's sexuality can be discussed openly.
In particular The Stranger's Child looks at the gradual evolution of gay culture in Britain and the effects of memory and ageing on individuals and society (for instance literary reputation, architecture and romantic relationships).
The Stranger's Child was generally received positively by critics, with Hari Kunzru in The Guardian calling it "this affecting, erudite novel" and Keith Miller in The Daily Telegraph describing it as "sleek, seductive and a little sly". Nicola Shulman in the Evening Standard said: "This subject - of memory and memorial, and the fates of the keepers of the flame - has been done before, and well, as the author acknowledges. But it may never have been done as amusingly". Peter Kemp in the Sunday Times said: "Masterly in its narrative sweep, richly textured prose and imaginative flair and depth, this novel about an increasingly threadbare literary reputation enormously enhances Hollinghurst's own. With The Stranger’s Child, an already remarkable talent unfurls into something spectacular".