Review by Dave Karp
“Yes, she thinks, this is probably how it must feel to be a ghost. It’s a little like reading, isn’t it-that same sensation of knowing people, settings, situations, without playing any particular part beyond that of the willing observer.”
This is probably one of the most haunting lines that stuck with me from Michael Cunningham’s fantastic novel, The Hours. A friend/mentor of mine let me borrow the book, knowing that I so much loved Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando: A Biography, which made me fall in love with Woolf. And, after reading The Hours, I can tell you this: This is one of the most haunting books I have yet to read, but in a unique way that maybe Mrs. Dalloway did for her generation, though I have yet to read the famous Woolf novel yet. The novel has been made into a movie as well, directed by Stephen Daldry and starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep as the leading ladies (and, may I add, a haunting score by Philip Glass). I recommend the movie, as it was a very good adaptation of the book and brought the haunting atmosphere the novel did to the screen, and stayed true to most of the book. But, back to the novel!
Cunningham takes the day in the life of three different women in three different time periods. There is Virginia Woolf herself in the early 1920’s in a suburb in London. Then, there is Laura Brown in 1950’s suburban Los Angeles. Last, but not least, is Clarissa Vaughan in New York City, 2001. Woolf is beginning to write Mrs. Dalloway, Laura deal with the disenchantment of suburban life with her husband, son, and another child on the way, and Clarissa is trying to get a party put together for a very dear friend and poet. We are thrown into the lives of these characters as well as their ghosts and troubles, and at the end of the novel, we find how all three of these stories and these lives come chillingly together.
This is a novel rich with not only story, but description. We look at the world these characters are living in almost poetically, and it works. Of course, there is dialogue, but the imagery that Cunningham gets on the page is very rich and he makes you see everything clearly as you are brought into the lives and environments of these characters. It’s some of the strongest description I have read in a while, and it really brings a whole other layer to the story, one that really makes you feel as if you are an “observer” or a “ghost”.
The story is one that you become quite curious and enriched in, and is very well written. The thoughts of these characters come out on the page amazingly as well, which makes us feel for them even more, and we understand their struggles all the more. The three women are haunted by many things, and we see that clearly, almost as if in some way it mirrors the lives you and I are living, and questioning how much happens within a day of the lives of everyone.
Which brings me to the thing I may have liked about it the most and was one of the most haunting aspects for me: It was an epic about the everyday life. Such as what Woolf did with her novel Mrs. Dalloway, Cunningham brings into his novel and adds his own flair to it. He brings out the power and the epicness of everyday thought, worries, and questions. With the question the three main characters have, you can’t help think about your own life and your own time you are occupying. The book gets even philosophical about living day after day, and why life is, in a way, both tragic and beautiful. But we are left with remembering that we have many days, many hours, and we should always remember that there are good things and bad, luck and bad luck, but that also, strangely, life is a beautiful thing and the only real enemy is time.