A few pages into Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, I knew that this would be one of my favorite books of all time. However, with a caveat. Unlike other “all time favorites,” I don’t think I’d re-read this book in the future. The reason for both those statements is the heart-wrenching subject-matter of the book. Centered around three women at three different time periods – Virginia Woolf in the 1920’s, Laura Brown in the 1950’s and Clarissa Vaughn in the late 1990’s – the book does not go beyond their routine for a day, yet manages to cinch the attraction to death and the curious grip that depression has on the characters. Death and depression – two words I’d use to describe the book, and I think those two words are enough to guess why I wouldn’t dare to touch the book again.
Cunningham is an exceptional writer. Just a few days ago I was telling a friend about my preference for dialog-driven narratives, rather than narratives that are heavy on description. Cunningham is very, very descriptive. However, I managed to stay interested; heck, I loved his descriptions. I would have never guessed that I’d enjoy an extended metaphorical description of a headache! You got to read it to believe it.
I love multiple narratives, and it works wonders here too. The stories of the three women are parallel and seemingly unconnected, and I loved the fact that Cunningham doesn’t try too hard to link them all together. I absolutely admire the author for converting into fiction the day in the life of a non-fictional Virginia Woolf and the amount of research that that might have needed. The other two women – although not as enigmatic and awe-inspiring as Woolf – hold their own, and one wants to read more about them.
It seems a vain effort to praise a book that’s so beautifully written. Cunningham spins a tale with the most sublime words, but the tale is about the most morbid topics. That’s the dichotomy that makes the book work. If you’re not afraid of melancholy, go read this book. If nothing else, you’ll learn a few new words!