Michael Cunningham's remarkable new novel, The Hours (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $22), begins with a harrowing depiction of Virginia Woolf's suicide in 1941. War has begun, and Woolf is again hearing those voices in her head, the same voices that have tormented her all her life. She has left a note for her husband, Leonard, and one for her sister Vanessa. Forcing a rock into her coat pocket, she walks into the river, a victim of her own genius.
Woolf's spirit, story, and literary achievement inform every page of Cunningham's novel, which illuminates a single day in the lives of three very different women: Woolf in London in 1923, the day she started writing her masterpiece Mrs. Dalloway; Laura Brown, a '40s Los Angeles housewife, who turns to Woolf's book as a respite from the constraints of her roles as wife and mother; and Clarissa Vaughan, a present-day New Yorker throwing a party for her friend Richard, a poet dying of AIDS.
As their stories unfold, Cunningham gives us subtly drawn portraits of the three women, and shows how the thoughts and experiences of one day can encapsulate an entire life. He goes on to show how the women's lives are linked, resonating across time and distance. Woolf's creative struggles are echoed in Laura Brown's discontent. Clarissa Vaughan's life as an out lesbian could have been Woolf's, had she been born 50 years later. The trio's lives are emotionally linked too, as each deals with how to balance love and work, family and achievement, the inner life and the outer.
Cunningham perfectly captures this complexity in luminous prose which gathers force as the lives of these three women converge. The Hours is a major achievement by one of the finest novelists working today. (Cunningham will read from his book on Wednesday, Dec. 9, at 8 p.m. at the Macalester College chapel, 1600 Grand Ave., St. Paul.)