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The Hours    by Michael Cunningham order for
by Michael Cunningham
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2002 (1998)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Michael Cunningham's The Hours takes its readers through a day in each of three lives. They are separated in time and space, but connected by a literary work, Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. These three protagonists are: the writer herself; a suburban housewife who is an avid reader of all Woolf's novels; and a New Yorker (nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway by a special friend) who seems to be going through a re-telling of that character's story in her own life. This exquisitely crafted device links the actors and tugs at the reader's curiosity.

The story opens and closes on a suicide. The prologue takes Virginia Woolf's point of view as she hurries out of her house and down to the river to end her own life in 1941. We then join 52-year-old Clarissa Vaughan's morning at the end of the twentieth century, as she runs out in search of flowers in New York City. She prepares for a celebratory party for her old friend Richard, who has just won the Carrouthers Prize and is steadily succumbing to AIDS. Richard has always called Clarissa Mrs. Dalloway.

While echoes of the novel are still sounding in Clarissa's life, we watch Virginia Woolf's imagination at work as she creates Mrs Dalloway in 1923. She is anxious to start writing in 'the way she might join a party ... a spark of profound celebration, of life itself, as silks rustle across polished floors and secrets are whispered under the music.' Then we fast forward in time to 1949 LA, where we meet young, pregnant Laura Brown, unfulfilled by her suburban life and distracted by the demands of husband and son. For Laura, reading Mrs Dalloway is 'the only viable way to negotiate the transit from sleep to obligation.'

Alternating through the hours of these three lives is fascinating. Here is Clarissa coping with the 'underwater aspect' of Richard's apartment 'as she would negotiate the hold of a sunken ship.' There is Virginia Woolf, carefully rationing her migraine-free writing time, as her hours dwindle away. And here again is Laura, who will 'not mourn her lost possibilities, her unexplored talents', but decides to bake a cake instead, living a life in which 'one wants what one gets.'

The Hours is an elegant exercise in empathy. Its images, like Clarissa's 'creaking scaffold' of sorrow and loneliness, stay with you - and the ending is brilliant. Given the suicides that frame it, this could be a morbid tale, except for the consolation offered of 'an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we've ever imagined'. You will certainly enjoy the hours spent on both the novel and the movie.

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