Thursday, May 13, 2010

Review: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

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.

18 comments:

K. Harrington said...

I'm reading this book right now. As you mention, it's taking me a while to get into each story. Right when the resonance with the characters begin, the chapter ends and I meet a new character. But I'm looking forward to looking at this book as a whole when I'm finished. Great piece!

Serena said...

I enjoyed this novel, but felt like it would have benefited from additional editing and tightening. I enjoyed the stories, but was not emotionally invested in their outcomes. I agree that I would have preferred Corrigan's story from his point of view, and I would love to see the author revisit that character in another novel.

I think the issue with this novel is the attempt to be too literary, trying too hard to connect the one event with all the characters and to show their connections to one another.

Also, leaving readers on the edge of becoming invested in a character only to switch stories was jarring.

However, I did enjoy the novel and am not sorry that I read it at all. I think it has a lot to say would be a great discussion book for book clubs. OK, I've offered my 2 cents.

LisaMM said...

Great review. It sounds like the thread that connects the stories is rather thin, maybe even slightly gimmick-y, but these kinds of books (with interconnecting stories) really appeal to me. Thank you so much for being on the tour and sharing this book with your readers!

bermudaonion said...

The reviews of this one seem to be somewhat mixed. Your review is very thoughtful and makes me think I might enjoy the book. Thanks!

Blodeuedd said...

Wait, was this the guy who wrote Dancer, the book I loved, if so then I am definitely checking out this one :)

Meghan said...

I think this book sounds just awesome - I keep seeing reviews and I so want to read it!

Sandy Nawrot said...

The audio of this book was sublime. I already knew about the tightrope walker, as I had seen the documentary "Man on Wire" and am fascinated with the whole event. The other characters, down on the ground looking up, were just as fascinating to me. Like Jennifer at Literate Housewife said, Corrigan was like Jesus. He loved everyone, including the homeless and the prostitutes. He forgave them of their sins. And when the lives were eventually all tied together, it was like the clouds parted, I opened my eyes and went "wow". Just blew me away.

Staci said...

I'm not sure that I will ever pick this one up but it does sound like a very interesting read.

Dreamybee said...

I'm not sure if this is a book I would be interested in, but if you haven't seen "Man on Wire" yet, I would definitely recommend it. I watched it not too long ago and really enjoyed it-the fact that they were able to pull off such a stunt at all was amazing.

Diane said...

I just picked up the audio version of this one today, but it will be a while until I start it as I'm finishing (2) books right now.

Steph said...

What a wonderful, thoughtful review. This sounds like a complex and compelling novel, though I'm not sure whether I'd enjoy it.

Alice Teh said...

This is something that I'd want to read. Thanks for the review!

Literary Feline said...

I bought a copy of this one a couple of weeks ago after reading several great reviews of it on blogs. It does sound interesting.

Jenners said...

I'm thinking that I need to try this book out ... I love seeing how connections are made in different stories. Plus some bloggers have just been gaga over this book!

Iliana said...

I've been wanting to read this book since I heard a review of it on NPR, now with the book tour I've had the chance to read more reviews of it and it just sounds like I'll have to give it a try. Thank you for your review Anna!

Carol said...

This was a great review, although I'm not sure if the book itself is one I would enjoy reading. It sounds like some of the stories are so sad.

Wanda said...

My edition of this book has the "bendy" man on the cover and is sitting on the shelf just above my computer. I received it a gift from my daughter and by the sounds of your review, should be one I'll enjoy.

Lisa said...

I really liked this one but you're right about not necessarily being able to connect to some of the characters. I just watched the documentary about the actual wirewalk--fascinating.