One of the most surreal moments of my life involved calling the Brooklyn College MFA program long after I should have heard from them to inquire about my admissions status, only to be told that there was a conflict in the department over my application. It was in limbo–some people were fighting for me, some were not, and there wasn’t enough room in the class to take me anyway. In fact, the secretary said, Michael Cunningham had my stories sitting in front of him on his desk at that very moment. (In the end I was 12th on the list and they took ten, or something. I’m sure it was for the best).
Anyway, despite the shrieking I did after hanging up knowing that Mr. Cunningham had actually, personally read words I put onto paper, despite completely loving The Hours, I’ve had A Home at the End of the World sitting unread on my bookshelf for years. I felt like I wouldn’t like it. Not because I was bitter at being rejected (although I’m not above hating certain places and people for that reason), but because the cover of the copy I picked up looks like this:
Thankfully, my friend Sara told me how interesting the structure of the book was and I was intrigued. So, I dusted it off, Colin Farrell’s face and all, and read it, with my hand held over my heart, in only two days.
At first, the chapters alternate between the points of view of two young boys named Bobby and Jonathon. Later on, when they become important, two other characters, Alice and Clare, begin to get their own chapters, too. It’s a little disconcerting at first, but ultimately, I think, successful. One of the ways that this switching off deepened the story actually had to do with the secondary, silent characters who weren’t given a voice. With the main characters, the reader sees Bobby’s and Clare’s impressions of Jonathon, then hears from Jonathon and can make judgments about what they’ve gotten wrong about him or what they’ll never know. But, with these silent characters, all we have to go by is what our speakers tell us. We’re held apart from their inner lives but I couldn’t help thinking about them; they have their own perceptions that we could only know had we a chapter to spend inside their heads. The changing voices are a constant reminder that everyone has a secret life, whether we get to see it or not, and they are part of why the world of the book is so round and full.
My favorite of the three sections of the novel was the first, when the characters were young and the foundation was being set for the rest of the story. The time period–the 1970s–seemed more authentic to me than it did in later in the book, when the boys were adults. I was trying to figure out why that was, because Michael Cunningham presumably knows much more about downtown New York in the 80s than I do. The conclusion I came to was that, because the boys were young children in the 70s, the details of the era were defamiliarized. They couldn’t seem stock because they were filtered through the eyes of people too young to understand them. In the 80s, the boys were viewing New York through a lens that is much more familiar. It seemed a little inauthentic because it was unsurprising. This is a minor quibble, though–I wouldn’t have noticed had the first section not been so exceptional and overall, it didn’t detract from my reading experience.
On a sentence level, the book is truly satisfying. Moments are carefully constructed, often containing echoes of ones that have come before. I couldn’t help think of Virginia Woolf, and not just because of The Hours. Here, Cunningham is able to capture the sadness of the everyday and the terrible tragedy of time passing, some of the chief break-your-heart qualities of To the Lighthouse. Although I’d never grant that any book was truly comparable to that one, I was happy to find glimmers of it in A Home at the End of the World.