Day by Michael Cunningham

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Review by Simon

A new novel by Michael Cunningham is cause for celebration. I’ve read and loved all his novels – give or take a not-to-my-taste venture into science fiction in Specimen Days – and have eagerly awaited another. I’m delighted to say that Day does not disappoint.

To the casual reader, Cunningham probably remains best-known for The Hours, with its three parallel storylines of Virginia Woolf writing Mrs Dalloway, a mid-century housewife reading Mrs Dalloway and a 1990s woman whose life very much resembles Mrs Dalloway’s. Day follows the theme of having a timespan in the title and taking place in three sections – though following the same group of 21st-century people. The first section takes place on the morning of 5 April, the middle section is the afternoon of 5 April, and the third section is the evening of 5 April. The twist on this idea is that the first part is 2019, the second is 2020, and the third is 2021. It’s the same day, but it is emphatically not the same day. This is, of course, Cunningham’s Covid novel.

The main cast are a family: dependable Isabel and her ex-rocker husband Dan, and their children Nathan and Violet. Isabel and Dan’s marriage is at the point where it will solidify or splinter, no longer based on lust and enthusiasm (Dan ‘looked, at age twenty, like a seraph out of Botticelli’) and starting to seem unequal. Living in the attic is Isabel’s gay brother Robbie, a teacher who once was going to be a doctor and who runs a popular Instagram account for an alter-ego, Wolfe, braver and more successful than he can be. The cast is completed by Dan’s artist brother Garth, his confidently independent friend-and-maybe-more Chess and their child Odin.

As early as the first paragraph, I knew I was in safe hands. Something about coming back to Cunningham’s prose feels like coming home. If you are a fan already, there is a comforting lilt and lyricism to his writing that welcomes you in. In isolation, it can feel a little over-written – but as a whole, it conveys the confident mastery of an author who knows exactly what language can achieve. 

This early, the East River takes on a thing layer of translucence, a bright steely skin that appears to float over the river itself as the water turns from its nocturnal black to the opaque deep green of the approaching day. The lights on the Brooklyn Bridge go pale against the sky. A man pulls up the metal shutter of his shoe repair shop. A young woman, ponytailed, jogs past a middle-aged man who, wearing a little black dress and combat boots, is finally returning home. The occasional lit-up window is exactly as bright as the quarter moon.

The first and longest section takes place, of course, before the pandemic was even a consideration in the world. It’s the section where we get to know the ensemble. Perhaps Cunningham’s greatest gift is making us feel like we are fully immersed in a group of people – though not necessarily in a comfortable way, because we are also party to the misunderstandings and unspoken understandings that characterise these groups. The family squashed into a too-small home reminded me most of Cunningham’s previous novel, The Snow Queen. In the house are any number of simultaneous, co-existing relationships between different characters. There is Isabel’s dissatisfaction that perhaps only Robbie has recognised. There is Dan’s resentment that he will never again have the creative high that comes from writing a song without any distractions or responsibilities. Most Cunningham of all, there is a curiously flirty relationship between Dan and Robbie, even though nobody thinks anybody will ever come of it – ‘erotic enactments of the ongoing flirtation that manifests itself as an admixture of frat brothers and long-married couple. These volleys of gay-speak are strictly private – they never occur when Isabel is in the room.’ There was a similar dynamic between brothers-in-law in By Nightfall, but it is more successful here.

Perhaps the most interesting and unusual character in the novel is daughter Violet. She is five when Day opens, ‘coming into a world of hidden rules, which she can learn only by breaking them’. She longs to wear her fanciest dress on unsuitable occasions, and reacts with sorrow and shame when corrected on this point. She is novel’s deepest thinker, developing an inner life over the course of the novel that doesn’t have the opportunity to grow in a healthy way.

She is the one who takes the arrival of the pandemic most seriously. Thankfully this doesn’t turn into a Covid-denier vs Covid-believer narrative or spiral off into To Vax or Not To Vax – but Violet certainly takes things too far. She insists all the windows remain closed at all times, and panics that family members are opening them. Her paranoia has the businesslike behaviour of any six-year-old with a task, but indicates a percolating trauma.

Violet sits expectantly on her bed, on the edge of the mattress, her feet planted on the floor. Someone will come and speak consolingly to her about how the kitchen window was carelessly opened, that the thing probably didn’t get in, and that no window will ever be opened again. Somebody, her mother or father, will come soon, and tell her that. All she has to do is wait.

I anticipated that the arrival of Covid would make this claustrophobic domestic set-up even more claustrophobic – but in fact not all of the characters stay there. Robbie, in many ways the novel’s sweet and confused heart, has made a drastic move to another country. His alias Wolfe is living a more satisfactory life, being both happier and simpler than its author. I might have preferred to keep the cast of characters together, and it would certainly have felt more ‘lockdowny’ if they had, but Cunningham always resist predictability.

I haven’t written much about Garth and Chess, and that’s because I thought their sections of the novel were less successful. They are not as interesting as characters, and while they overlap with the main household, they take us out of the home with its intimacies and frustrations. I think Day would have been a better novel for cutting them altogether.

But, overall, Day is an extraordinary book by one of the best writers around. We are still in the early days of Covid novels and doubtless have many more to come, but I doubt Cunningham’s will be bettered. 

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Simon is a co-founder of Shiny New Books and is series consultant for the British Library Women Writers series.

Day, Michael Cunningham (4th Estate, 2024). 978-0008637552, 273pp., hardback.

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1 comment

  1. I’m very glad I saw what you thought and felt confident to buy a copy: I loved it and am reviewing it this week. I liked Chess and Garth as sort of shadow copies of Isabel and Dan, giving a different view and outcome.

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