What he liked about his brother, he said, is that he made people become what they didn't think they could become. He twisted something in their hearts. Gave them new places to go. Even dead, he'd still do that. His brother believed that the space for God was one of the last great frontiers: men and women could do all sorts of things but the real mystery would always lie in a different beyond. He would just fling the ashes and let them settle where they wanted. (from Let the Great World Spin, page 154)
The 2009 National Book Award winner, Let the Great World Spin, is set in New York City in 1974, when the Vietnam War had everyone on edge. Colum McCann's novel focuses on numerous characters in chapters that read almost like short stories and are tied together by a real-life event: Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974.
The novel opens on the morning of the tightrope walk, when hundreds of men and women of all races and social classes join together on the city streets and look up at a tiny speck in the sky. The tightrope walker, never mentioned by name, is causing a buzz, with people taking sides as to whether he will make it across or fall to his death. From there, McCann introduces a set of diverse and oftentimes eccentric characters: an Irish monk torn between his radical religious beliefs and romantic love; a grief-stricken prostitute who worked the streets with her daughter; a troubled young boy obsessed with graffiti in the subway tunnels; a woman hit hard by the loss of her son in Vietnam; and a drug-addicted artist, among others.
Right away I was drawn into the stories of these people, characterized by intense pain and a need for love. Considering the rough lifestyles of several of the characters, one could argue that they were lost causes, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw a bit of hope in each of their stories, even if things didn't end well. Although I found their stories extremely interesting, it felt like I was far removed from them, and I couldn't really connect with them emotionally. The story of the Irish monk, Corrigan, for instance, was told from the point of view of his brother, but he was such a unique character -- more so than the brother, in my opinion -- that it would have been interesting for the story to have come out of his own mouth. Yet I think I understand McCann's choice in narrator, so it didn't detract from my enjoyment of the book.
McCann connects the characters in ways that I didn't necessarily expect, but they were believable connections. However, it took awhile for some of these connections to be made, and I spent much of the book wondering what these people had to do with the tightrope walker. I think connecting the chapters with the tightrope was a neat idea; and while I understand that the use of this real-life event helps to set the scene and I see the connection between the tightrope walker perched precariously above the city and each of the characters on the brink of something, I don't believe it was necessary and often felt like a digression.
Let the Great World Spin brings New York City to life, underscoring the diversity of its boroughs and its residents and how even people in a big city can be linked to one another in interesting ways. McCann tackles some heavy topics, like the Vietnam War, addiction, and faith, through the eyes of people who are anything but ordinary. It was like a disaster, with part of me wanting to shield my eyes from all the tragedy and part of me unwilling to stop staring. There's so much more that could be said about the characters, but I really think it's best to start reading without knowing too much about them so as not to spoil the moments when they come together. McCann is a very talented storyteller, and I can see why Let the Great World Spin is an award-winner.
Thanks to TLC Book Tours for allowing me to participate in the Let the Great World Spin tour. To check out the rest of the tour dates, click here.
Let the Great World Spin is the 6th book I've read for the Vietnam War Reading Challenge at War Through the Generations.
Disclosure: I received a copy of Let the Great World Spin from Random House for review purposes. I am an Amazon affiliate.
© 2010, Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not copy or reproduce content without permission.