Readers who enjoyed Michael Cunningham’s prize winning novel The Hours are in for a treat. By Nightfall is even better. With craftsmanship both delicate and powerful, Cunningham grapples with happiness: how we create meaning and reconcile the ravages of time.
As an adolescent, Peter Harris sits on a beach at sunset and experiences a transcendent moment when sexual longing, the beauty of youth, and sibling rivalry blur and merge, becoming a fixed constellation of ideas that will shadow his life. In that moment, Peter is overtaken by the tingling sensation of a divine presence, something he will later call beauty.
Many years on, this experience haunts a week in Peter’s life. At forty-four, he’s a successful New York art dealer, long married to the calm, lovely Rebecca and living comfortably in a lavish Soho loft. Then, Rebecca’s brother Mizzy arrives unexpectedly and becomes a catalyst for crisis. Peter imagines another life in which art is not a business and love is always heightened. He spends troubled days and nights struggling with desire, nostalgia and loyalty. Rebecca faces her own trial, something Peter fails to imagine; when he learns of it, all his fantasies come crashing down.
Cunningham is a master of interiority, atomizing moments to reveal their full psychological gravidity. What Peter and Rebecca experience is something that happens in all marriages. Contentment dulls while the tingling promises of passion, beauty, youth allure. Cunningham suggests the luckiest among us recognise these are transient temptations, that the real art of life is change itself.