The moment you read the first few pages of Michael Cunningham's excellent novel, By Nightfall, you are reminded of Virginia Woolf. It's in his sentence structure, in the simple, effective way he uses description, and the way that time defines itself by almost disappearing throughout the narrative -- I can't help but think of Woolf when I read Cunningham and I don't think that's a bad thing.
By Nightfall, the story of Peter and Rebecca Harris, a middle-aged couple grappling with the state of their lives, their marriage and how they ultimately want to live, not just in the world but with each other, seems simple at first. But it's full of complex human relationships and the politics of family -- which is often just as dramatic than the politics of every day in the House of Commons. Rebecca's youngest sibling, Ethan, called "Mizzy" as he was a mistake (their mother was 44 when she got pregnant), is coming to stay. Troubled, addicted, and having lost sight of what he wants out of life, Mizzy has come to NYC to stay with Rebecca and Peter to find himself. Apparently, he's clean, but not for long, and a strange, awkward relationship evolves from his visit, something that changes Peter's life irrevocably.
Peter and Rebecca have jobs in the arts -- she runs a failing literary magazine and he a small gallery -- and the premise of Mizzy's stay is that he wants to investigate a career in the arts too, only it doesn't come to that. He remains terribly lost throughout the entire novel and seeing the very gentle way he manipulates everyone around him is one of the most effective strains in the narrative. You know, in your heart, that you can't trust an addict to tell the truth, to keep his word, to not fall off the wagon, but it's an impressive way that Cunningham weaves Mizzy's own capacity as a true deceiver into the novel. He's a beautiful boy, one that can't be resisted.
The moral conflict in the novel, the decision that Peter must make, for his relationship, for his livelihood, for the future, confounds him. He simply can't move from the one place that seems to be forcing him to go. The crux of the novel, how simple it seems at the beginning, a book about a brother coming to visit, becomes so much more as it explores the past and present of Peter and Rebecca -- how they met, what their days are like, what their marriage is like, and how they'll continue after Mizzy's eventual departure -- truly feels complex by the end. It's a quiet narrative but the writing is just so superior, so effective, that this novel might just end up being one of the best I've read all year.