Publisher: Picador, 2012
Page count: 576 pages
“The stranger’s child” begins prior to World War I when George Sawle, the middle son in the family, brings Cecil Valence, an up-and-coming poet and fellow Cambridge student, to his family home “Two Acres” for a weekend. Cecil is a dashing, upper class dandy and gentleman who makes quite an impression on George’s 16-year old sister Daphne. She’s not the only one infatuated with Cecil, however; unbeknownst to his family, George, too, is in love with Cecil. Before leaving, Cecil writes the poem “Two Acres” which later becomes famous after being quoted by Winston Churchill.
In the remainder of the book, we follow the fortunes, ups and downs of the Sawle and Valence families, with the weekend at Two Acres as the recurring red line running throughout the story. In part two, following Cecil’s death in the trenches of World War I, Daphne marries his brutish brother Dudley and moves in at the posh Corley Court. At the request of her formidable mother-in-law, “the General”, Daphne hosts a very awkward weekend commemorating Cecil with members from both families as well as a biographer prowling around. In the third part, set in the late 60’s, Corley Court has been turned into a boarding school. Paul Bryant, a local bank clerk, attends Daphne’s 70th birthday and has his first love affair with Peter Rowe, who is a teacher at the school. We meet Paul again in the fourth part as he travels around interviewing the people from Two Acres and Corley Court for his biography on Cecil.
This is a fascinating story, and quite a difficult one to describe. I picked up “The stranger’s child” in an airport mostly on the basis of the cover, which made the story look like the book version of “Downton abbey”. Despite the book not being at all like the TV show, I nevertheless enjoyed it immensely and ploughed through it in one sitting even though it is close to 600 pages. This book is a real tour de force, where Hollinghurst seamlessly takes the reader through the twists and turns of the 20th century while at the same managing to link it all back to that long-ago weekend at Two Acres. A fantastic achievement of a book!