My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The key to writing a great Transatlantic novel must be to be christened “Colm” or “Colum”. Colm Toibin wrote the brilliant “Brooklyn”. Colum McCann’s “TransAtlantic” brilliantly based its narrative around the Transatlantic crossing of Alcock and Brown. In “Let the Great World Spin”, the central event is the high wire walk between the twin towers by Phillipe Petit in 1974.
“Let the Great World Spin” starts in Ireland, with the childhood of the Corrigan brothers. The younger Corrigan is drawn to the streets, the disadvantaged, the beggars of Dublin. He joins some sort of religious order, and gravitates to the projects of New York, where he lives among drug dealers and prostitutes. The book tells the story of the Corrigans and in parallel, maps the lives of others who are in New York at the time of the high wire walk. 1974 was also the year Richard Nixon resigned, and this momentous political event also pervades the book.
McCann details the lives and the thoughts of the prostitutes, of the Corrigan brothers, of mothers of soldiers killed in Vietnam, of Petit himself, of the judge who presides over the case of Petit when he is brought to court, of the women involved with the Corrigans. It is a vivid picture of several walks of New York life, a enthralling insight into the lives of the people who were born there and drawn there. McCann concludes the story back in Dublin, and back in the Corrigan family home where the story opened.
The writing is clear and skilful, without being overly ornate or mannered. The storytelling is colourful and entertaining. Whilst the book is long, it moves at a satisfying pace and does not overdo the descriptive detail or inner thoughts of the characters. The central event, Petit’s dazzling walk between the twin towers, his lying down on the wire 400 metres above the New York streets, provides not just a backdrop to the story, but a metaphor for the lives led by the key characters. All of them take daily risks in their lives. All of them are trying to find some kind of joy. Some survive, some fall. Petit was privileged enough, charismatic enough to be treated favourably by the court system. The prostitutes were not so lucky. Petit was willing to gamble with his life. Perhaps the soldiers in Vietnam also gambled with theirs and were unlucky, or more likely they had little choice.
McCann says that the book is also a way of writing about 9/11, and the destruction of the Twin Towers. The issues of war, leadership, religion and race are certainly central at the time of Petit’s walk, as they were 2001 and will be for years to come.
I’ve spent most of this week in bed with a nasty cold and sinus infection. What I needed was a good book to transport me from my self-pity. This is an epic book. At 349 pages, it will transport you for an extended period. Wonderful.
Colum McCann talks about his book here: