"Exiled in Richmond in the 1920s, Virginia Woolf struggles to tame her rebellious mind and make a start on her new novel. In 1990s New York, Clarissa Vaughan goes shopping for flowers for a party for her AIDS-suffering poet-friend. This novel meditates on artistic behaviour, love and madness."
Reputation can be a superficial and perilous thing, but having never been a huge fan of Woolf's work, I picked this up on the basis of reputation alone. Something that won the Pulitzer and was made into an award-winning film must have something going for it, I thought, and surely people don't go on about Virginia Woolf for nothing?
However, as one begins to read, it quickly becomes clear that it is Michael Cunningham, rather than Virginia Woolf or Mrs Dalloway (the novel on which The Hours is based) that is the real star of the show. Even though it is occasionally difficult to see the links that Cunningham makes at times (which makes me think, for once, that this is one of those rare occasions where extrinsic knowledge when reading a novel may be of value), with the final chapter, where all three main characters meet, perhaps being the most bewildering of these, all three women's stories are compelling and realistic. Each are hypnotic in their own very human ways, and these qualities are further drawn out by the qualities of the peripheral characters, especially Richard.
Cunningham's prose is utterly poetic, serving as a real cornerstone for the standard of fine fiction. This, however, should not put it out of readers' reach: the novel contains plenty of the standard themes of shock, love, friendship and frustration, as well as examining madness in a way that is simultaneously critical and faithful, without being overly romantic. Consequently, even if you finish the novel without wanting to know anything more about Virginia Woolf, you will be wanting to know more of the works of Michael Cunningham.
Other works by Michael Cunningham
Golden States (1984)
A Home at the End of the World (1990)
Flesh and Blood (1995)
Specimen Days (2005)
First three Chapters....
8 years ago