Day by Michael Cunningham: Love, loss and carrying on

Cover image for Day by Micahel Cunningham I was thrilled when a new Michael Cunningham popped through my letter box. I’ve been a fan since A Home at the End of the World which I loved for its depiction of a different sort of family from the conventional norm. It’s remained my favourite Cunningham novel, still fresh in my mind, which is perhaps why I found echoes of it in Day which charts the same April date in the life of another unconventional family over three years.

Isabel’s briskly knowing melancholia conjoined with Dan’s unembarrassed optimism; her inner tumble of thwarted desires and his earnest if unreasonable expectations. Robbie’s in love with the person they’ve created together – someone romantic, someone generous of heart, someone kind and gentle but wised-up and ironic, as well.

On the morning of 5th April 2019, Isabel is looking out of the window of the cramped Brooklyn apartment where she lives with her husband and two children. Her brother Robbie lives on the top floor still sore from his break-up with Oliver, half-heartedly looking for his own place while making up Instagram posts for Wolfe, his and Isabel’s childhood fantasy ideal. Six-year-old Violet adores her uncle as does ten-year-old Nathan although he’s loath to show it these days. Still hoping for a comeback for his rock star career, Dan has taken on the role of househusband while Isabel works as photo editor. There are stresses and strains, as there are in any family, but Robbie senses a greater difficulty between Isabel and Dan. A year later, Robbie is in Iceland trapped by the pandemic on a trip which was to herald a new start. Missing his family, he spends the afternoon writing letters to them while they are trying to cope with lockdown life back in Brooklyn. The evening of 5th April 2021 sees a family gathering, very different from those that have come before. Much has changed for them, as it has for the world.

There are no cars. There’s no one on the sidewalk. The street, unpopulated, awash in sourceless light, could be a photograph of itself.

The pandemic, of course, looms large in this novel and, yet again, I was struck by the strangeness of the times which we lived through and the resilience with which we’ve bounced back, although not all of us, of course. Cunningham shifts smoothly from character to character, giving each a distinctive voice. The relationship between the three adults is particularly well done, an interdependency and love which seems ideal at first glance. Tensions that were there in 2019 are exacerbated by close proximity, relationships are reassessed, some positively, some not. Some come to understand themselves better, others realise that compromises may have to be made. All are brought together by bereavement. A beautifully expressed novel about love, loss and carrying on, Day is marked by the same thoughtful perceptiveness that made such an impression on me when I first read A Home at the End of the World. Definitely one for my books of the year list

4th Estate Books: London ‎ 9780008637552 336 pages Hardback

23 thoughts on “Day by Michael Cunningham: Love, loss and carrying on”

  1. Isn’t it brilliant? Isn’t HE brilliant! It was on my best books of 2023, and I’m already re-reading. It reminded me most of The Snow Queen and By Nightfall, but it does seem to have echoes of many of Cunningham’s wonderful oeuvre.

  2. The Hours is one of my favourite novels and yet I’ve never picked up anything else by him. You’ve reminded me what an enormous mistake this is! This sounds wonderful, and I’ll look out for A Home at the End of the World too.

  3. Ohhhh, I distinctly remember the afternoon I finished reading A Home at the End of the World. How bereft I immediately felt when I knew their story was behind me, contained between those two covers. It was such an immersive and complex story-so thoroughly satisfying-that I didn’t want it to end. (But he IS good and he has written very well in other stories of course.)

  4. I bought this one in my post-Christmas book shopping after seeing it pop up on so many ‘best of 2023’ lists. Interesting to see the pandemic starting to come into so many novels (I’m currently reading another pandemic novel, Hotel Milano by Tim Park) – wondering if I will tire of it as a theme, much like I tired of lockdowns!

    1. That’s on my list, partly to remind me of a Milan holiday which was my first post-pandemic foreign trip. I thought I’d avoid pandemic novels but have read quite a few now. That period has begun to take on a dreamlike quality in my head!

  5. Like you, I’ve had a terrific starting my reading year. I nearly picked this one off my TBR as my next read (but am now firmly ensconced in another terrific read by an Australian author The Hummingbird Effect) so Day will have to wait until I finish the Mildenhall.

    1. I hope you enjoy this one when you get to it, and I’ll check The Hummingbird Effect out. Let’s hope it’s available here in the UK. So often Australian and Canadian novels that catch my eye aren’t. Quite why is a mystery!

  6. I’ve felt before that I should read more Michael Cunninghan, I have only read The Hours. This does sound good, and I am aware how highly people rate his writing generally. It’s interesting how slowly we’re seeing the pandemic referenced more and more in fiction.

    1. Highly recommend Cunningham’s writing although, apart from The Hours, his novels don’t seem much talked about here. Having sworn I’d avoid pandemic fiction I seem to have read quite a bit of it, inevitable given how it affected us all, I suppose.

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