When you read a great novel, you feel like your intelligence is being enhanced, that your imagination is being trained to be sharper. It’s like what Berenson said about art: it’s an enhancement of life. Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child hit me that way. When I left off reading the book, I felt I was losing the track of what was going on. Then when I went back to my reading, I felt my head gearing up, powering up to the aesthetic level of the book again.

It’s about 550 pages. But don’t feel daunted by the length. Reading The Stranger’s Child is like diving into sponge cake. It’s a delicious and sensuous experience. But there’s a high order of sustained intelligence at work that knows how to defer the ultimate pleasures of literature until just the right time. There’s a command of character and its expression. Conversations have a main current as well as eddies and undertows in the body language and the dialogue so that you feel as a reader that you’re drifting in several directions at once, all of them interesting.

The Stranger’s Child is divided into five sections which are further divided into chapters. The last section is shorter than the others so I suppose it serves as an epilogue. I’ve read the first three sections so far, which is the bulk of the book. I’ll wrap up the last two sections in the second part of my post. I wouldn’t be surprised if my understanding of the novel shifts in my second take.

The first three sections each cover a different generation in the story from just pre-World War I, at the tail end of the Edwardian period in England, up through the 1960’s in the third section. Reading Child is like taking an express elevator. A bit of vertigo sets in when you move from section to section since Hollinghurst seems to start a new story with a new set of characters at the beginning of each section. At first, the reader doesn’t know where they are in the story.

For example, the first page of the third section introduces about eight new characters and by the next page we are up to about a dozen. There such a grand elan, such a great confidence in AH’s virtuoso introduction of these characters. It’s as if he’s a master juggler showing off how many balls he can keep in the air. The reader may feel momentarily confused by what seems like the start of a completely new story in the novel they thought they were reading. But after a time, key characters from earlier sections in the epic tale are reintroduced and the reader feels like their mental compass, which has gone off on a spin, has re-stabilized itself.

Daphne appears as a naive child, about to experience her first flirtation, in the first section. In the the second section we have jumped up a generation and Daphne is a middle aged, married woman. In section three, another generation has ascended to the starring role and Daphne is now a grandmother. The inexperienced child we were introduced to at the start of the story is now matriarchal head of her clan. Narrative technique? Hollinghurst conveys the impression that he invented it.

In a middle class homestead called Two Acres for obvious reasons, Daphne and her brothers George and Hubert are entertaining a schoolmate of George’s from Cambridge. Cecil is to the manor born, the manor being a Victorian pile called Corley Court.

The family is a bit nervous about how they are going to entertain George’s aristocratic friend. But Cecil is a member of an aristocracy that’s even more exclusive than the landed gentry. He’s a published poet and that most charismatic of all beings, a beauty of an artist on the make.

Cecil behaves with an annihilating freedom that voids the stolid middle class proprieties and wan entertainments of Two Acres. While the family, of a summer evening, listens to some early Wagner recordings on the gramophone, Cecil is out back on the garden hammock with George. But Cecil’s secret relationship with George doesn’t restrict Cecil from also coming on to Daphne, still a virtual child.

Cecil writes a poem in Daphne’s kid’s autograph book. Maybe you had one when you were a kid. You know, an album where you ask the noted people in your community, like the vicar, to leave their autograph, maybe with a personal inscription. I had an autograph book like that when I was a kid. I’d be afraid to take it out now.

But Cecil does more than write his autograph. He pens an impromptu poem that later is acclaimed as a great work of English literature. It even comes to be quoted in a speech by Winston Churchill.

The Stranger’s Child moves on, through a multitude or characters and a procession of generations. What really happened, between George and Cecil and between Cecil and Daphne, and how much everyone knows about it, is unclear. The characters involved seem all too willing to spin the truth.

But I’m left with this memory from early in the book, when an artist and master of all-encompassing charm, spent a weekend, one lousy weekend, in a stuffy middle class domicile. The withdrawal of charm is a terrible thing. Once you’ve experienced it and then had it taken away. It’s like being thrown out of Eden just when you were getting used to the place.

Here’s a quote from The Stranger’s Child, the reference is to Daphne: “What she felt then; and what she felt now; and what she felt now about what she felt then: it wasn’t remotely easy to say”.