「The Hours by Michael Cunningham」
A sheer delight for literati and artists alike, Cunningham’s third novel seems at first a precarious and ultimately hopeless enterprise. A contemporary author’s assertion that he can accurately assume the voice and mind of Virginia Woolf is an outrageous claim and perhaps one that would be better left alone. For Cunningham, thankfully, this is not the case. The result of his dicey foray into the minds of three troubled women is a haunting work of radiance and intensity, a breathtaking success. In the style of Woolf herself, Cunningham presents the deeply hidden inner workings of his characters in classic stream of consciousness style, and gives the reader a firsthand view of the fears and desires that plague and motivate them.
The novel fluctuates between three different eras, recounting instant by instant the burdensome grief of three women, and their collectively steadfast desire to keep up appearances. Virginia Woolf needs no introduction, but Cunningham creates Clarissa Vaughn and Laura Brown with ostensible ease, breathing into both a vulnerable spirit, while blessing us with an apt commentary on feminine society and its limitations. Cunningham’s gift for depiction and luminous imagery infuses the text with an overall feminine quality and voice as well, illustrating his sophistication and his talent for transformative language.
Cunningham begins without hesitation—at the end—plunging us headfirst into the moment of Woolf’s suicide by drowning, only to pull us out again to experience the world of this beloved writer and her torments, so that we may rise and descend with Woolf at intervals. All the beauty and sorrow is presented in spades, and for Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughn the sadness is no less palpable, the narrative no less replete with paltry attempts at sustainable joy. Party planning and cake baking do not bring the women closer to the gratification for which they are so desperate. In what is perhaps his most notable display of talent, Cunningham weaves in and out of the lives and minds of these women, simultaneously connecting all of them in series of profound and fascinating turns.
This is a novel of madness and its underpinnings, of love and its often contradictory measures, of connection and ambition and success beyond the measure of oneself. It is a novel of greatness that cannot see itself, and what happens when that greatness is immeasurable, and not to be contained.