The Hours by Michael Cunningham

“Dear Leonard. To look life in the face. Always to look life in the face and to know it for what it is. At last to know it. To love it for what it is, and then, to put it away. Leonard. Always the years between us. Always the years. Always the love. Always the hours.”

The Hours CunninghamA party that slips into a wake. A woman who wants to kill herself because she can’t cope with a peaceful, suburban family life. Virginia Woolf fighting the demons in her head. Apparently three stories without any connection. Read “The Hours” and you’ll be amazed how one can imagine a book that intertwines them all. I first read Michael Cunningham‘s “The Hours” in 2006. Since then, I’ve read it twice more, and I am positive I will do it again sometime in the future. This is one of those books I wish I wrote myself. I do not think that any review can do justice to this book, so I’ll try to stick to my very personal and subjective opinions about it.

Cunningham wrote “The Hours” in 1998 and the book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1999. It’s not a very long book and the first time I read it in 3 or 4 hours without pause. It’s not that it has a thrilling plot that makes you not want to put it down. This is the kind of book you don’t want to put down simply because it talks about everything in less than 250 pages. Love, time, death, emptiness, family, abandonment, suicide, gay/lesbian relationships, books, poetry, depression, life in the big city, rural life, mental illness, physical illness, you name it, “The Hours” has it. It’s actually remarkable how Cunningham integrates all these seamlessly in his triptic story. All the elements are where they should be and as I read the book I didn’t feel overwhelmed by all these topics, but by the power of the characters instead.

Even though it may seem that “The Hours” is crammed with all these topics, there is actual a main motif to the story. As you turn the pages, you can almost feel that time is an invisible character in the book. Time is not only the element that lays at the base of the book, but also a recurrent motif in the stories of all characters. We witness the painful struggle of three of the main characters with the hours that align inexorably before them.

What do you do with the hour after the one that passes so slow it feels like a perpetual agony? And with the hour after that? Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown, and Richard Brown all seem to think that the only way to stop the hours from swooping upon them is to take their own lives. Virginia chooses to put some stones in her and drowns herself. Richard puts an end to his pain by jumping from the window of his flat. Laura Brown is the only one who thinks that she should give the hours another chance, but even though she doesn’t get trough with her suicide attempt, she decides to change the way she is going to spend the hours she has left. If this means leaving her family, starting over in Canada, and live 50 more years of solitude, then so be it.

The intertextuality in “The Hours” is poignant. There are strong echoes of “Mrs. Dalloway” in a book that has Virginia Woolf as a character. It’s a pretty smart thing to do in a novel and Cunningham makes it look so natural. The play with time is what makes the novel remarkable, though. Everything happens in a single day, but the stories overlap as Cunningham jump-cuts masterfully through the century, only to converge unexpectedly for the grand finale.  “The Hours” is very much concerned with creativity and even though the poet and the writer in the novel see themselves as failures, ironically this is not the case with Cunningham, who has written one of the most imaginative books I have ever read.