Let the Great World Spin

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Let the Great World Spin By Colum McCann, book reviewThis remarkable novel begins with the arrival in New York of Ciaran Corrigan, an American who has come in search of his brother, known simply as Corrie, a monk who lives among the prostitutes and heroin addicts in the Bronx housing projects. Generous to a fault, Corrie allows the girls to use the lavatory in his flat and hands out hot drinks at all hours of the day and night, despite beatings at the hands of the pimps; Ciaran, concerned to see his brother taken advantage of, tries to persuade Corrie to return with him to Ireland. Two in particular of the working girls have an enormous respect for Corrie, even if they don’t always show it in their actions. Tillie fears for her daughter Jazzlyn who has followed her onto the streets in spite of her best attempts to give her daughter a life far removed from her own; unable to break the cycle, though, Jazzlyn has ended up on the streets, selling sex to support her two young children and to fund her heroin habit. Elsewhere in New York Claire Soderbergh is a Lexington Avenue matron grieving for her talented young son killed in Vietnam. While Claire struggles to deal with her loss, her husband, a prominent judge loses himself in his work. A small ad in the “Village Voice” leads her to a group of mothers who have also lost sons in the war. One of them, Gloria, a black woman originally from the south, has lost all three of her sons; Claire feels a connection to her but Gloria is strangely reluctant to get too close to her. These lives and others come together with dramatic consequences against the backdrop of one momentous event; when a young men rigs up a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and walks between the buildings early one sweltering summer’s morning. Inspired by Philippe Petit’s famous feat in 1974, “Let the Great World Spin” captures New York City at a pivotal time. There are some great characters among the vignettes but it’s the city that is portrayed most brilliantly. This is the real New York, not the sanitised New York seen in ‘Friends’ or ‘Sex and the City’. This New York is fast talking, tough and violent; from the housing projects of the Bronx to the upper class penthouses of Park Avenue, the real New York jumps off the pages as large as life.

“This is a really unique and remarkable account of a New York that, post-9-11 can never be again.”

To be truthful I wasn’t convinced by the concept, fearing that any plot that connected such a motley band of characters would be tenuous at best. However, while some of the characters do meet in a physical encounter, others are connected by something more remote yet, very cleverly, all the lives impact on one another in some form. This layering effect is quite beautiful. I loved the way each character took something from the tightrope walk and gave it his or her own symbolism; a hint of hope for the future, a flash of bravery, or a gesture of desperation. The tightrope walker has his own explanation too; he walks for the sheer beauty of it. The different voices are immediate and enthralling; I loved how quickly each new character developed and how layers of their character were sometimes added when they were mentioned in another vignette. In our first encounter with Claire Soderbergh we learn how she feels disconnected from her husband Solomon who seems not to be affected by their son’s death as Claire is. But later when Solomon is the subject, we learn much more about his feelings than Claire is able to tell us. The way that Colum McCann voices these different characters is really remarkable. He is an expert at capturing the nuances of people’s characters, their different vocabularies and their perspectives on the same subjects. I really loved the chapters in which the grieving mothers meet to talk about their lost children. Claire and Gloria could hardly be more different yet their grief unites them, albeit with a degree of awkwardness. Characters and setting combine effortlessly; it’s hard to imagine these particular people in any other setting I was so persuaded of their being in the right place at the right time. This is a really unique and remarkable account of a New York that, post-9-11 can never be again. Highly recommended. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, July 2010

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Let the Great World Spin
by Colum McCann

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Written by Mary Bor
Mary Bor

Aspiring travel writer and avid Yugophile living in the UK and Slovenia. Loves (in no particular order) Scandinavian crime fiction, Indian food, walking, scavenging, Russian dolls

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