A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham

A Home at the End of the WorldI read Cunningham’s second novel on the flight to America, having bought it on my previous trip. I loved The Hours and enjoyed Land’s End, and wanted to read more by him. This novel is mostly told from the perspective of two men, Bobby and Jonathan. That is to say, they start as boys. The opening lines, from Bobby’s perspective, are:

Once our father bought a convertible. Don’t ask me. I was five. He bought it and drove it home as casually as he’d bring a gallon of rocky road. Picture our mother’s surprise. She kept rubber band on the doorknobs. She washed old plastic bags and hung them on the line to dry, a string of thrifty tame jellyfish floating in the sun.

A couple of pages later, we shift to Jonathan’s perspective…

We gathered at dusk on the darkening green. I was give. The air smelled of newly cut grass, and the sand traps were luminous. My father carried me on his shoulders. I was both pilot and captive of his enormity. My bare legs thrilled to the sandpaper of his cheeks, and I held on to his ears, great soft shells that buzzed minutely with hair.

So, Bobby is five and Jonathan is five. And, it turns out, A Home at the End of the World was first published on my 5th birthday,  7 November 1990, which is a fun coincidence. But, instead of 1990s Merseyside (where I spent that birthday), these boys are in Ohio in the 1960s.

Had I known the extent to which this novel incorporated the ‘coming-of-age’ genre, I might have fun a mile; it’s not a subset of literature that I often enjoy. In describing this novel, I can’t really deny that it is firmly in that genre. And yet it’s done rather better than I could have hoped for; events and emotions follow on from events and emotions, and Cunningham entirely captivates the reader while they’re relayed. Usually I just roll my eyes or wait for some horizon where they become adults and the prose can start describing a destination rather than a journey. Here, the journey of growing up was made to feel an apt focus.

There are some significant events – including deaths – that affect the lives of both boys. One of the most powerful comes early in the book, when the older brother Bobby idolises dies in a freak accident, running full pelt through glass doors. Their relationship was mostly founded on taking drugs together, so he was hardly a stablising influence on Bobby’s life but Cunningham conveys the closeness of brothers extremely well – and the ways in which Bobby responds to it.

Throughout the novel, he is shown as sensitive, attuned to others, and with a deep-set need to belong. Jonathan, on the other hand, values independence – struggling to accept the overtures of his friendship his mother offers. As Bobby and Jonathan grow older, their close friendship turns into a sexual relationship, albeit one that neither of them want to directly discuss even between themselves. The alternating first person narratives give the reader a chance to see how both characters feel and think about their experiences, while at the same time witnessing their diffidence. Cunningham handles the tension between first-person insight and objective events really beautifully.

Here was another lesson in my continuing education: like other illegal practices, love between boys was best treated as a commonplace. Courtesy demanded that one’s fumbling, awkward performance be no occasion for remark, as if in fact one had acted with the calm expertise of a born criminal.

In a coming-of-age novel, this might be where events would have ended – but, for Cunningham, it is simply the beginning. One chapter of their lives end, and another begins – indeed, takes most of the novel – as Jonathan moves to New York. Bobby remains behind, even moving in with Jonathan’s parents; the men lose touch, until Bobby decides to move to New York too.

Another thing Cunningham portrays brilliantly is the way that friendships peter out. In fiction, once characters bond they often seem ineluctably close forever after. Far more realistic is the awkwardness between Bobby and Jonathan – an affectionate awkwardness, but where all the affection is based on memories. Still, Bobby moves in with Jonathan and his housemate Clare. The three of them form a delicate trio. I shan’t write any more about what happens, but suffice to say that plenty more happens – all of which (as throughout the novel) is played well for plausible emotional impact and character rather than simply the shock of plot.

Easily the greatest achievement here is Cunningham’s writing. I jotted down, in my pencil note at the beginning, that the writing was ‘seductive’ – by which I meant that it seduces the reader into the world of the novel. And that, I think, is by gradually building up composite portraits of its characters (particularly, of course, Jonathan and Bobby) through a sort of restrained intimacy. The first-person narratives feel like they’re telling us everything, but they are not confessional voices: they reveal parts of the people, and keep enough back to reel us in.

Although this novel is not flawless (I think death and dying is used a little too often to maintain its impact, for instance), it’s difficult to fault the creation of character, the exploration of perspective, or the realism of behaviours. He really is an exceptional writer. (And which others do you think I should read?)

10 thoughts on “A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham

  • May 26, 2015 at 1:59 am

    I read this book back when you were only five…when it first came out and enjoyed it. I didn’t like it as much as I did his first novel Flesh and Blood, I think, which is a more sprawling family saga type book. The Hours is his best work to day, but I would probably rank Home at the End of the World as number two. How did you take the ending? I was upset by what Clare did in the end at the time, but I can see why she did it now.

    By the way, there is a decent movie version of Home at the End of the World. It’s loyal to the book when it should be.

    • May 26, 2015 at 11:16 pm

      Everyone seems to love Flesh and Blood, and I didn’t know anything about that one until right now!

      I did find Clare’s actions at the end a bit difficult to accept, and the others’ response to it ditto, but… I could definitely believe it.

      And I have the DVD of the movie version, but haven’t watched it yet. I believe Cunningham wrote the screenplay himself, which gives me much hope for it.

  • May 26, 2015 at 8:51 am

    I adore all of Cunningham’s books but I agree that “Flesh and Blood” is a meatier saga. I must pick up his later ones – well, I have one TBR. Love them all and glad you liked this one. Interesting thoughts about Coming Of Age novels – small town coming of age is one of my favourite sub-genres!

    • May 26, 2015 at 11:17 pm

      I will clearly have to keep reading him! I don’t have Flesh and Blood, but I imagine I could pick it up quite easily.

      But, yes, I had to overcome my aversion to small town coming of age. And I can’t even think of novels I’ve read in the genre that I’ve disliked, so I think my aversion has been carried across from films!

  • May 26, 2015 at 10:05 am

    I read this and Flesh and Blood pretty close together, about ten or twelve years ago, and I agree that Flesh and Blood packs more of a punch. Cunningham’s most recent novel, The Snow Queen, also features two brothers – I think he is very very good at these sibling relationships and also, as you say, at writing about friendship. Specimen Days is probably best described as speculative fiction intertwined with Walt Whitman and I found it compelling but troubling; it is written in three linked stories and thinking about the last one still makes me feel very uncomfortable.

    I’ve heard Michael Cunningham read/speak about his work three times now and he is highly entertaining – the collective gasp in the tent at the Charleston Festival when he announced that Nicole Kidman was going to play V Woolf in the film of The Hours was a great moment.

    • May 26, 2015 at 11:20 pm

      I read a couple lukewarm reviews of The Snow Queen, so didn’t seek it out, but I do love books about brothers, so should give it another go! I left Specimen Days on the shelf various times in the US, mostly because the copies were so enormous, but I don’t regret it now – your description makes it sound like the opposite of my cup of tea!

      I wonder if Cunningham got in trouble for announcing Nicole Kidman’s role? I guess she was a curious choice. I love that film so, so much, but I have to say there are a lot of people who could have played a more realistic Woolf.

  • May 26, 2015 at 8:11 pm

    I’ve only read The Hours by Michael Cunningham which is one of my favourite books, and I’ve been meaning to explore the rest of Cunningham’s work for a while. I love what you say about the creation of characters and their friendship – I’ve just added the novel to my to-read list :)

    • May 26, 2015 at 11:20 pm

      Excellent Gemma! The Hours is definitely still my favourite of the three Cunningham books I’ve read, but I’m also really keen to read more.

  • May 27, 2015 at 5:58 am

    I loved The Hours and you have inspired me to try this one, especially as I enjoy books with a character-driven narrative and those written from a male viewpoint. Looking forward to it. Many thanks.

  • May 27, 2015 at 11:51 pm

    Maybe I will read The Hours, as it sounds like a favorite of his. My TBR stacks are towering though.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: