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strangers child book review

Written By Franklin V on Friday, November 18, 2011 | 9:33 PM

Book: The Stranger's Child
Author: Alan Hollinghurst
Publisher: Picador 
Pages and Price: 564 pages, Rs 499

Running through like a subterranean stream that threatens to rise and engulf the solid serenity of Hollinghurst's creations, who inhabit the splendid Victoriana of his country houses, the chilling interiors of her fabled citadels of learning, is the recurrent theme of homosexuality. Alan Hollinghurst, whose absence from this year's Booker shortlist has mystified many, is regarded as the supreme stylist of his generation in England. Not just as an explorer of an aggressive gay sensibility as was once the case, until he made his mark with the Booker award for The Line of Beauty. Hollinghurst's vision has about it a magisterial sweep that rekindles the imagination of what exactly it once meant to be English.
If Dylan Thomas began his most famous poem on carnal love with the imagery of the green fuse that drives the flower he did also acknowledge its ferocity in the next verse where "The force that drives water through the rock/ drives my red blood." Hollinghurst is of the adamantine persuasion. There's a fetish of red blood wherever he looks. In one of his moments of self-revelation, he allows one of his characters, Paul Bryant, a petulant bank clerk turned biographer of a well-known, but soon to be forgotten popular poet just before World War I, Cyril Valance, to catch a glimpse of himself in a mirror eating from a plate of biscuits with "his forceful rodent-like look, the odd sag of his neck on one side as he chewed, the flicker of his temples." Paul decides that "he wasn't at all sure he would want to confide his secrets to such a man."

Or as Paul observes about Cecil Valance, who could seduce every young man and woman crossing his path with the noblesse oblige arrogance of his generation, "It wasn't snobbery exactly, more an unthinking self-confidence."

This knowledge that no matter what else might be true, the glorious self confidence of the pre-World War generation that fuelled the hubris and lordly manners of post-Victorian society in England in the early years of 1913, where the novel begins, would never again be possible is what makes Hollinghurst so beguiling. He touches upon the things that are most beloved to the English sensibility. He has a finely tuned ear for the cadences of speech and fashion that he parades in front of us with a sharpness that reminds us of Paul, the bank rat.

For instance, talking of the second wife of the heir to Corley Court that figures as a glowering presence through all the five sections of the book, Hollinghurst lowers his fangs into her ageing profile. He tells us: "And there was something else, about the stiff auburn mane, and the long black lashes - Paul knew in his bones that she hadn't been in Dudley's world, even though she was now its lacquered carapace."

One can just hear her whinnying laugh. Even if it does not quite come to that, there's a tense moment in the august chambers of the College, where she and her husband Sir Dudley Valance have been invited, when she effectively brushes off an overzealous Indian guest who has been badgering her husband in that loquacious way that Third World scholars tend to pretend that they are now on equal terms with their former patrons. Paul feels the sting off this dismissal since he too is on the fringes of this society, even as he gloats over the manner in which the Indian slinks away leaving the field open to him.

It is this pre-occupation with class and sex that reinforces the Englishness of the novel. There is a continued fascination with the upper classes in particular and the way they dress, eat and dine together in the marvelous mansions built by their ancestors.

The last owner of the stately pile, Daphne, who becomes Lady Valance drifts through all the four main sections of the book that scan the century in a manner that recalls Irene of the Forsyte Saga. There's some truth in the notion that Hollinghurst has tried to be kind to his women characters and Daphne in particular. Then again Daphne is a parvenu from a lower rung of the social scale, until she shags her way up into the upper echelons of society and then down again. It's Brideshead Revisited meets the Bloomsbury set. Lytton Strachey figures in passing, being an early example of the homosexual as intellectual dilettante, as do meditations on the rise and ebb of reputations in a manner that Strachey was to inaugurate in his Eminent Victorians.

It's the delicate balance between the longings for a past, for a perfect union, for a kindling of the blood that will never be satiated that gives the novel its particular edge of darkness in an age where lightness is all.
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