I’m a bit of a fan of Michael Cunningham and have enjoyed all his novels. This one has a more conventional narrative (in terms of structure and ambition) than The Hours, A Home at the End of the World and Specimen Days, but it’s still very good.
This story starts with a young Greek man named Constantine emigrating to America where he marries an Italian-American girl called Mary. The story weaves in and out of the lives of Constantine and Mary, their three children, Susan, Will and Zoe, and their grandchildren, Ben and Jamal.
There is something Tomas Hardyesque in the tragic momentum of this novel, in the way the disasters that afflict the family all unravel with a sense of terrible inevitability from the mistakes made by Constantine and Mary.
Don’t look to this book for a cheerful read, but if you want psychological insight into the dynamics of family life, it’s definitely worth a look. Cunningham is brilliant at analysing the ways in which people take up different roles within a family and the long-term implications of those roles. For me, it’s also saved from falling into the genre of self-indulgently miserable family saga by its attention to queer experience and subtle representation of racism. The transgender character, Cassandra, is particularly well drawn and it contains a powerful affirmation of the alternative family.
Cunningham is another writer who’s good because he’s ready to go there, to write a miserable novel and, just when you think it can’t get any worse, punch you in the guts with something worse, caring only about being true to his story no matter how horrible it gets. The fate of the eldest daughter, Susan, is particularly heartrending.
The ending feels a little rushed, but is touching nonetheless.