Cunningham appropriates the original title - and much else besides - of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, as he interweaves an account of Woolf's work on the novel with tales of its after-life in 1940s Los Angeles and 1990s New York. The first strand, in which he sticks closely to the versions of Woolf's writing and publishing familiar from the writer's own Diary and Richard Kennedy's A Boy At The Hogarth Press, is the most achieved. He convincingly captures Woolf's fragile sensitivity as she remains confined in Richmond under the benign wardership of Leonard.
The second strand sees Mrs Dalloway published and exerting its grip on Laura Brown, a Los Angeles housewife who yearns to escape from domesticity. As she bakes a cake for her war-hero husband and prepares for the birth of their second child, her only escape lies in reading. The third strand centres on a lesbian publisher, Clarissa Vaughan, whose name and temperament have led her erstwhile lover and lifelong friend Richard to christen her Mrs Dalloway. Clarissa is throwing a party to celebrate the now dying Richard's award of a major literary prize.
Cunningham's last novel, Flesh and Blood, was a sprawling family saga; The Hours is a tight-knit conceit. The writing is elegant, at times exquisite, offering striking images such as a man patting his pregnant wife's stomach "carefully but with a certain force, as if it were the shell of a soft- boiled egg". But the conscious emulation of Woolf's style reduces the expression of a unique sensibility to the level of accomplished pastiche.
The problem is that The Hours is a book about links rather than life. Woolf fans will have a field-day noting the correspondences between Clarissa Vaughan's world and Clarissa Dalloway's: both women spend their day planning parties; both are startled by the return of old friends; both have daughters in thrall to older women; both are affected by men who commit suicide. Yet, ultimately, this amounts to very little: it is the cleverness of crossword puzzles rather than the complexity of art.
Cunningham clearly intends his elaborate artifice to address the serious theme of the changing role of women - it is a far cry from Virginia's thwarted trip to London and guiltily incestuous kiss on Vanessa's lips to Clarissa's independent life with her partner, Sally. But this is constantly undermined by a structure which is saying that women's sensibilities are all the same. Moreover, the connections are largely arbitrary. Laura might just as well be reading Daniel Deronda as Mrs Dalloway, while Clarissa Vaughan appears to inhabit a universe in which nickname is fate.
As a result of a friend's quip 30 years previously, she finds herself the contemporary embodiment of a Woolf heroine. It is fortunate that Richard did not opt for another literary namesake, Clarissa Harlowe; given the novel's logic, she would have ended up drugged, raped and shamed.
by Michael Cunningham
Fourth Estate, pounds 12.99, 230ppReuse content