Michael Cunningham’s latest novel begins the way novels tend to begin in the minds of novelists: with a strange and mesmerising vision. When 38-year-old retail clerk Barrett Meeks, rawly heartbroken after his boyfriend dumped him via text message, glances at the sky above New York City’s Central Park, he sees ‘a pale aqua light, translucent, a swatch of veil, star-high, no, lower than the stars, but high’, a light that seems to be apprehending him as ‘a whale might apprehend a swimmer, with a grave and regal and utterly unfrightened curiosity’. When Barrett returns to the Brooklyn apartment he shares with his older brother Tyler, a bartender and songwriter, and Tyler’s fiancée, Beth, who’s in the grim late stages of liver and colon cancer, he refrains from telling them about the apparition – thereby setting in motion Cunningham’s vision for a novel about the intuitive and acutely private ways in which we seek redemption and transcendence.
Barrett – a serial failure in love and life, indicted in his brother’s mind as ‘another of New York’s just-barelies’ – is our main guide for the journey. He’s a middle-aged sad sack and a man of miniaturised actions, but he’s nonetheless bright and genial company – Cunningham makes sure