Book Review: By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham
Book Review: By Nightfall
by Michael Cunningham
2010 Fourth EstateReviewed by Claire Williams
Stranger Disturbs the Peace
At forty-four years of age, Peter Harris has made a good life for himself. He’s doing well dealing contemporary art from his own gallery, with satisfied clients and promising new artists. He lives in New York, in a spacious Soho loft that he and his wife Rebecca were lucky to purchase “before the market went crazy.” Despite his good fortune, he has a strong feeling of dissatisfaction, and it’s buried somewhere deep within his soul.
Enter Rebecca’s younger brother, Mizzy (short for “The Mistake”) – a beautiful, intelligent and manipulative young man with a history of drug addiction. Mizzy’s presence in their lives results in a kind of internal chaos for Peter, where he questions his marriage, his past, his sexuality and his career.
This is not a novel driven by plot – there is a dinner here, a subway ride there, a trip to an artist’s studio – but Cunningham always kept me engaged, even exhilarated. Cunningham delights in the quotidian. It is everyday events that invite musings into the past and future. We begin to ask ourselves the same questions causing Peter so much anguish. And isn’t that the mark of good writing – to leave the reader with a sense of what it means to be alive?
As with his other work, Cunningham takes an interest in issues of sexuality. Peter’s memories of his gay brother – who died of AIDS – are vividly portrayed throughout the narrative. These reminiscences, combined with his own sexual stirrings towards Mizzy, make for interesting comments about male and adolescent desire. Yet Cunningham never lets the issues obtrude. Instead, they enhance and complicate broader themes of love, death and beauty.
Some readers may find Peter difficult to sympathise with. He is so besotted with the idea of beauty, he is unable to form a close bond with his solid, plain-looking daughter. At other times he is too self-absorbed to observe his wife’s own restlessness in their marriage. But this is a minor criticism – By Nightfall is a dazzling portrait of contemporary relationships.
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