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Friday, 11 September 2009

Books – Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Star rating - 9/10

The theme that runs through this original and spellbinding book in the daring wire walk between the Twin Towers in New York in 1974. But it is about so much more than that. It is an interweaving of lonely characters that leaves a lasting imprint.

Emptiness and loss in very different senses are at the heart of these most moving stories that are very cleverly and seamlessly interlinked. Claudia, a wealthy resident of the well heeled Upper East Side is trying to come to terms with the loss of her son in Vietnam. So desperate that she even tried to pay one of friends to stay with her for a few hours. Corrigan is escaping childhood hurt in Ireland by befriending prostitutes and trying to stay true to his religious order. Tillie, herself a prostitute, imbues her desperate situation with humour:

‘I used to love the joke where the last line was: Your Honor, I was armed with nothing more than a piece of fried chicken.’

McCann tells these stories, and many others, in a vivid and deeply compassionate way. He seems to be spinning a web of loss, and even with backgrounds that are not steeped in sadness, it seems he sees trouble ahead. As one of his characters remarks:

‘I used to think it was difficult for children of folks who really loved each other, hard to get out from under that skin because sometimes it’s just so comfortable you don’t want to have to develop your own.’

The New York he brings to life so skillfully is the dangerous 1970’s city of violence and malevolence – not the current cleaned up version. This is a book that is haunted by the spectre of both the wire walk, and by the 9/11 tragedy that we know all too well that will come, but that is not referred to here.

But the book is also one of hope, and the wire walk is used to pull all the stories together and lift them out of the depths. Most of the references to it are about other people’s reactions to the amazing feat. But in the middle of the book, at its taut centre, McCann explains that:

‘The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium.’

And McCann certainly takes the form of novel to new places in this brilliant book. It is sad, beautifully balanced, and very moving. A haunting work indeed.

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