REVIEW: “A Home at the End of the World” by Michael Cunningham

A Home at the End of the World

Michael Cunningham
Farrar Straus Giroux, NY, 1990

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge.

Finished 15 Aug 2010

At last! The drought is over. I have finally finished another novel! Now I have to work hard and see how much I can catch up over the rest of the month. Oh yes, and post this review.

I picked up A Home at the End of the World because, as you will no doubt know, I recently watched the movie adaptation and completely fell in love. From the synopsis:

A Home at the End of the World is the story of two boyhood friends: Jonathan, lonely, introspective, and unsure of himself; and Bobby, hip, dark, and inarticulate. In New York after college, Bobby moves in with Jonathan and his roommate, Clare, a veteran of the city’s erotic wars. Bobby and Clare fall in love, scuttling the plans of Jonathan, who is gay, to father Clare’s child. Then, when Clare and Bobby have a baby, the three move to a small house upstate to raise “their” child together and create a new kind of family.

The story is told in four different voices, alternating between Jonathan, Bobby, Clare and Jonathan’s mother, Alice. Perhaps having seen the movie added to the text for me, because before I even opened the book the characters were already real: they had faces, habits, particular ways of moving and thinking which were already understood. The movie did half the book’s work for it. Still, I agree with those who have said that there was too little character definition in between parts: I couldn’t really get a sense of each character’s voice from their internal perspective, mostly because Cunningham’s style simply overrode any attempt at individuality between sections. Too, I found the sustained bleakness of the narratives depressing and quite stressful to read, to the point where I could only read it in fragments towards the end. It was as if there was no hope or love left in the world: the sheer loneliness of each of the characters was devastating.

However. These things aside, it is worth reading for the majestic prose and insightful observation it provides on the human condition. While it may have set out to be a story of three adults and their attempt to negotiate their own complicated love triangle, to me Home is really about the end of an era, the collision between the ‘free love’ attitude of the sixties and seventies with the hard realities of the 1980s and the start of the AIDs epidemic: “They looked like a pair of beatniks, sloppily dressed in a remote, unimportant place. In their sunglasses and T-shirts and unruly hair they looked like they were standing at the brink of the old cycle: the 1960s about to explode around them, a long storm of love and rage and thwarted expectations. Bobby put his arm over Jonathan’s shoulder. They both waved.” (p.327) It’s about being lost; it’s about growing up; it’s about never quite getting your heart’s desire. It is not a happy book, but it is a powerful one, because it tackles head-on those fears shared by the majority of the human race: of illness, death, loss and failure.

It is also well written enough that I would recommend it to anyone brave enough. Some of my favourite quotes, other than those I’ve featured in previous Teaser Tuesdays:

“How are you feeling, man?” he asks me.

“Great,” I tell him, and it is purely the truth. Doves clatter up out of a bare tree and turn at the same instant, transforming themselves from steel to silver in the snow-blown light. I know at that moment that the drug is working. Everything before me has become suddenly, radiantly itself. How could Carlton have known this was about to happen? “Oh,” I whisper. His hand settles on my shoulder.

“Stay loose, Frisco,” he says. “There’s not a thing in this pretty world to be afraid of. I’m here.”

I am not afraid. I am astonished. I had not realized until this moment how real everything is. A twig lies on the marble at my feet, bearing a cluster of hard brown berries. The broken-off end is raw, white, fleshly. Trees are alive.

“I’m here,” Carlton says again, and he is.

— pp.22-23

“I’m talking about a little truth-in-packaging here. To be perfectly frank, you don’t quite look like yourself. And if you walk around looking like someone other than who you are, you could end up getting the wrong job, the wrong friends, who knows what-all. You could end up with somebody else’s life.”

I shrugged again, and smiled. “This is my life,” I said. “It doesn’t seem like the wrong one.”

— p.148

Overall, a compelling novel but a bit too much on the bleak side to be comfortable. I feel a definite need to read something light and fluffy now, just to cheer myself up! The film is much better; I think if you combined the two of them – the movie’s rich depiction of love and hope in the face of adversity, the book’s sad but still beautiful ending – you’d have the perfect story.

RATING:

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  1. September 1st, 2010

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