Let the Great World Spin – Colum McCann

This was a random choice by my book club. Someone had it, but hadn’t read it yet, but was keen to read it. That was enough – a bit of enthusiasm and we will all jump on board.

Here’s the blurb …

In the dawning light of the late summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. . . . It is August, 1974, and a tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter-mile in the sky. In the streets below, ordinary lives become extraordinary as award-winning novelist Colum McCann crafts this stunningly realized portrait of a city and its people.

Corrigan, a radical young Irish monk, struggles with his own demons as he lives among prostitutes in the Bronx. A group of mothers, gathered in a Park Avenue apartment to mourn the sons who died in Vietnam, discovers how much divides them even in their grief. Further uptown, Tillie, a thirty-eight-year-old grandmother, turns tricks alongside her teenaged daughter, determined not only to take care of her ‘babies’ but to prove her own worth.

Elegantly weaving together these and other seemingly disparate lives, McCann’s powerful novel comes alive in the unforgettable voices of the city’s people, unexpectedly drawn together by hope, beauty, and the tightrope walker’s ‘artistic crime of the century.’

McCann uses the 1974 tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center as a way of linking his characters (a bit of a six degrees of separation thing). This is another novel with many (and varied) narrative voices – eleven (I drew a chart). These narrators cover a large spectrum of humanity; a prostitute (she’s 38 and a grand mother), the judge who sentences her, mothers who have lost their children in Vietnam, a man who compulsively photographs graffiti in the subway tunnels and a computer nerd. McCann is fabulous at bringing these voices to life – I particularly admired Tillie (the prostitute).

Hooking was born in me. That’s no exaggeration. I never wanted no square job. I lived right across from the stroll on Prospect Avenue and East Thirty-first. From my bedroom window I could see the girls work. They wore red high heels and hair combed high.

In 1974 none of the characters appeared to be happy, but choices were made and lives changed and the next generation seemed to be on the path to happiness. Tillie’s grandchildren did not become prostitutes (breaking a family tradition). This novel is about balancing, between playing it safe and being risky, making a connection with others or being alone and it is also about picking up the pieces and getting on with life.

I’m glad that I read this novel – although I struggled with the first section (the bit narrated by Ciaran) and I’m not sure I will be reading it again in a hurry. I admire the characterisation and the sense of place created by Mr McCann.

Another review …


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