Genre fiction offers escape, entertainment, and release from the boring. Reading it, we spend time with vampires and witches, sexy wizards, and complex villains. Genre fiction is often bigger than life, with an almost comic book feel. Regular life, and literary fiction, don’t usually involve the fate of the world.
Instead, the best literary books amplify. They hold a lens up to simple, common experiences, and if written well, encourage us to see them in another light. A good book can take a cliché event, polish it off, and find a new facet we haven’t seen before. That facet, often something universal, strikes a chord with us because it reflects our own lives and experiences.
Michael Cunningham’s a Home at the End of the World is such a book. Transformative, it’s a book that revels in events that could be sentimental but resists painting them with those colors. Four points of view cross and overlap at just the right intervals. Big events in the characters’ lives often occur off screen, between points of view that highlight more important, more intimate moments. What shapes these characters isn’t the death of a parent, at least not by the end. Rather, they grow through the tiniest bit of personal introspection and struggle to explain this to one another.
At its core a Home at the End of the World is dealing with a particular existential malady, one we all feel: the sense that we’re waiting for our lives to start, even as life passes us by. Yet it doesn’t try to remedy this feeling. The characters move through the decades without a resolution until the very end, when Cunningham conjures an ending for them that perfectly reflects much earlier moments while showing us that the characters have truly found a change in their internal landscape.
I read a lot of good books. A Home at the End of the World is a truly great one.