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Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann

This was one of those books where, after I closed it, I sat very quietly, just breathing out and breathing in, holding onto the last moments of a good story. Although it was a little slow to start, I found myself more and more caught up in the characters' lives, how they were all so cleverly interlinked, woven together. The core of the story takes place on the 7th of August, 1974, the day that Philippe Petit walked on a high wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, and we begin with his high wire walk. Petit is never directly named, and although there are flashes back to his training for the event, and his feelings and experience at the time, his is not the focus of the story, but merely the hook upon which all the other characters hang together.

Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ruth Ng
Reviewed by Ruth Ng
Summary: Beautifully inter-woven New York stories that linger on in your mind once the last page is closed.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: September 2009
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747597223

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The book feels cinematic in scope. New York of the 1970's is evoked well, and the topics touched upon range through war, poverty, exploitation and race. But this isn't a preachy, overtly political book. It's essentially a story about love, and about loss. It can be heartbreaking at moments, yet it didn't leave me feeling depressed. McCann masterfully exercises his writing skills as he whips up character after character, each one individual and he shifts between voices, tones and styles seemingly effortlessly.

There are perhaps two key characters in the book; Corrigan, an Irish monk who is living in the Bronx, helping the local prostitutes and struggling with his faith, and Claire, a Park Avenue wife who is mourning her son who was killed in Vietnam. However, the novel functions almost as a series of short stories, many of which could probably stand alone, but together they slowly grow and meld and transform from a handful of vignettes into a beautifully crafted novel. It is Corrigan's initial story that I found a little slow, and it was Claire's that I liked most. Her nervousness, her desperate, consuming grief, her honesty and her longing come across so very clearly that it was almost painful to read.

Sometimes the shift in pace within the book can be a little jarring, but on the whole I felt all the characters worked well, including New York as a character too, since the city has its own starring role within the book and we see it from all angles, from up in the air on a high wire, from a penthouse on Park Avenue, from prison, from a judge's office, from the streets of the prostitutes and the very worst parts of the Bronx. The human characters too are from all walks of life, some young, some old, all of which add up to make a very flavourful novel.

I had actually just watched Man on Wire, the documentary about Petit's tightrope walk between the World Trade Centre towers, before reading the book, so I don't know if having seen footage of the walk helped to deepen the images within the book. I think that McCann described it all very well however, both the amazement, beauty, horror and fear of those in the crowd watching his walk, as well as Petit's own preparations, skill and utter joy as he carried out the walk. I'd recommend both, if you're interested - a good film and a great book.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then we think that you might also enjoy How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall.

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