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Originally published Sunday, October 23, 2011 at 5:00 AM

Book review

Alan Hollinghurst bears beautiful 'Stranger's Child'

Book review: Alan Hollinghurst's magnificent new novel, "The Stranger's Child," explores how a living, breathing existence can become, decades later, a biographical subject riddled with omissions and distortions.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'The Stranger's Child'

by Alan Hollinghurst

Knopf, 564 pp., $27.95

Toward the end of the magnificent new novel by Man Booker Prize-winner Alan Hollinghurst ("The Line of Beauty"), a key character reflects on how she remembers — or fails to remember — the novels she read 20 or 30 years ago.

"Sometimes a book persisted as a coloured shadow at the edge of sight, as vague and unrecapturable as something seen in the rain from a passing vehicle: looked at directly it vanished altogether. Sometimes there were atmospheres, even the rudiments of a scene: a man in an office overlooking Regent's Park, rain in the streets outside — a little blurred etching of a situation she would never, could never, trace back to its source."

That passage has little directly to do with the plot of "The Stranger's Child," but everything to do with its essence, as Hollinghurst explores how a living, breathing existence can become a biographical subject riddled with omissions and distortions.

The subject in question is poet-aristocrat Cecil Valance who in the first section of the novel is an omnisexual wild-card, filled with "airy aggressions" that alarm and/or seduce just about everyone around him. Forty-four years later Cecil is seen, by a young aspiring gay writer contemplating writing his biography, as "a very minor poet" of World War I "who just happened to have written lines here and there that had stuck." He's on school syllabuses. His life was "dramatic as well as short." And the people who remember him, loved him and were apparently "loved back" are still around to be interviewed.

The contrast between living Cecil, as extravagant and carnal a creature as they come, and dead Cecil, who posthumously draws all his surviving circle into "false piety and dutiful suppression," couldn't be more striking. As the decades pass and Cecil slips into the margins of literary immortality, his essence becomes more veiled and more subject to others' agendas.

Hollinghurst divides the novel into five novella-length sections set in 1913, 1926, 1967, 1980 and 2008. In each of them, he demonstrates his knack for conjuring the moments between events, the seeming down time in which the ramifications of turning points in life sort themselves out. His immersion in each period is fluid and free of false notes, collectively fusing into a single symphonic epic.

Most of the characters who were in Cecil's life are so brilliantly, waywardly alive that a less extravagant novelist might have saved them for novels of their own. Paul Bryant, Cecil's would-be biographer and the "stranger's child" of the title, certainly has his work cut out getting the facts from them.

That title is taken from "In Memoriam A.H.H.," Tennyson's ardent, obsessive poem-cycle mourning his friend Arthur Henry Hallam. The specific stanzas concern a garden "unwatch'd," "unloved" and "uncared for" until a youngster with no historical connection to it chances upon it.

This being Hollinghurst, there's something as grasping as worshipful about Paul as he sets out to possess the memories Cecil left behind. Paul is, as one of his potential sources notes, "too young himself to know that memories were only memories of memories. It was diamond-rare to remember something fresh."

That line — one epiphany among dozens equally insightful — gets at the heart of this beautifully written, brilliantly observed and masterfully orchestrated novel.

Michael Upchurch is The Seattle Times arts writer: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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