Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World
Picador (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 1990

Michael Cunningham forced my introduction to Virginia Woolf because I desperately wanted to read The Hours and, so, Mrs. Dalloway had to come first.

The Hours has been a favourite contemporary novel ever since, but only his appearance at this year’s International Festival of Authors in Toronto pushed me in the direction of his backlist.

A Home at the End of the World was his second novel and I enjoyed it so much that I’m now considering Flesh and Blood and Specimen Days (his novel By Nightfall will be published on the 28th of September).

As in The Hours, A Home at the End of the World is told from more than one perspective, two female voices (that join the narrative later) and two male voices. It’s the relationship between Bobby and Jonathan that comprises the heart of the novel.

At first I worried that I wouldn’t be able to distinguish between them easily, but the boys’ voices are distinct after just a couple of segments (the early ones are short, with the bulk of the narrative focussed on late teen years and their twenties). It was easy to tell them apart after all.

Then I worried that I would prefer one of the boy’s voices over the other (you know how often that happens), but even though Bobby and Jonathan were quite different personalities, and the circumstances of their lives contrasting indeed, I was equally attached to each of the boys. It didn’t matter to me which one was narrating the next segment: I simply wanted to keep reading.

And then I worried about the intrusion of the female voices, but that was deliberately enacted. Alice’s is the first female voice we hear and yes, of course she is intruding; she is the mother of a teenage boy — and while he may have had a good relationship with her, he needs his teenage-boy space just now — and the reader feels her imposition too. And yet Alice offers a unique perspective on events and many of the passages that I noted were in her voice; the book would not have been the same without her.

And finally I worried that I was two-thirds of the way through the novel and there was no sequel and only 100 pages left to read. The boys were only in their twenties, and I wasn’t going to get to know how everything turned out for them.

Yes, I worry too much. Not just about novels either. But when you get really attached to characters, you want things to turn out for them.

The focus of A Home at the End of the World is not only the relationship between Bobby and Jonathan, but how they negotiate other significant relationships in their lives, what they’ve observed in their parents’ marriages and how they want their own intimate relationships to mimic or be different from them; I didn’t want to leave them in their twenties, when they’d still be uncertain about so many things.

On the day that I knew I was going to finish this book, it was grey and rainy and too-suddenly-not-summer cold. We had no reason to go out and were snugged in with the cat for a day at home. It was the perfect day for it.

But no. I had to go to the movie rental shop. I had to pick up a copy of A Home at the End of the World because I wanted to finish the book and still feel as though there was more to be had (MC wrote the screenplay so it does feel like an extension of the novel rather than a threat to it).

And I still haven’t watched it because I don’t want there to be nothing of these characters after that. Yes, I over-worry and I’m clingy.

And yes, I’m definitely reading more of Michael Cunningham’s fiction.

Are you? Have you?

Some quotes:

From Jonathan:
“We spent every day together. It was the kind of reckless overnight friendship particular to those who are young, lonely, and ambitious.”

From Bobby:
“The air reeked of disappointment: river water thick as maple syrup, cinder-block shopping centers with three out of five units dark. Working in a bakery, you get to know the local unhappiness. People stuff whole cakes into their sorrow, brownies and cookies and Bismarcks by the dozen.”

From Alice:
“Perhaps the biggest surprise of married life was its continuing formality, even as you came to know the other’s flesh and habits better than you knew your own. For all that familiarity, we could still seem like two people on a date that was not going particularly well.”

From Jonathan:
“We become the stories we tell about ourselves.”

From Bobby:
“I am beginning to understand the true difference between youth and age. Young people have time to make plans and think of new ideas. Older people need their whole energy to keep up with that’s already been set in motion.”

PS Yes, Michael Cunningham is appearing at the IFOA 2010; see their site for details.