Let the great world sink

February 2, 2010 at 7:43 pm | Posted in Award winners, Literary Fiction | 1 Comment

Colm McCann, ‘Let the Great World Spin’, Bloomsbury 2009

I love Bloomsbury publishers. They have published some of my favourite authors and books such as the wonderful Elizabeth Gilbert, Tobias Wolff, Amy Bloom, Hunter S. Thompson, Alexander McCall Smith and Joanna Trollope. They have broken an array of new authors and have always been amazingly discerning in their fiction lists. This is the first time they have let me down! ‘Let the Great World Spin’ is a disaster. It uses Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center as its central metaphor and recounts the story of two Irish brothers living in New York in the late 1970’s. There are a plethora of other characters introduced into the story, all with huge profound life changing experiences of prostitution, war, love and death but they simply don’t work as characters. Why?  I think it is because McCann tries to include too many big ideas, for example the birth of the internet, into this story. These ideas are so big they require more detail, space and dare I say even more research into them than they are given. McCann paints a picture of a mother grieving the death of her son in the Vietnam War but the descriptions could have been of any war. The descriptions of New York give no real tangible indication that it is New York in the late seventies. There are too many characters and we don’t get a real sense of any of them. It is complicated and disjointed and the metaphor of the tightrope walker has no real place in the book. It is far too ambitious and doesn’t deliver. Jennifer Johnson’s new book ‘Truth or Fiction’ is half the size of ‘Let the Great World Spin’, has only a handful of characters and is a very simple story but evokes so much more beauty and so many more ideas by saying so much less.

National Book Award Winner 2009

Haiku; Many ideas, disconnected, were Bloomsbury thinking?

Click here to view this book at Amazon.com

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  1. Oh how to begin challenging this terribly harsh review of such an interesting and enjoyable read as Let the Great World Spin! Having read Colum McCann’s Zoli and really detested it, I was apprehensive to say the least, when I first picked up this Let the Great World Spin. How pleasantly surprised I was when Colum presented me with such an array of interesting characters and humane storylines! Sarah’s claim that this book recounts the story of two Irish brothers really misses the point, I fear. In my view, the point of this book is that it recounts, with equal emphasis, many stories of many different characters. There are a few links between these characters, but not many, so the book really reads almost like a series of short stories. What’s the problem with that? Well, there is none. I never got bored during this read, due to this storyline switching. And if there was a character I didnt find too pleasant or interesting, no need to panic, as the storyline soon switched to somebody else. And as for this book being over-ambitious, with no real sense of New York in the 70s, the joy of this book for me was that it could have been anywhere… are not human nature and the dramas of life, love, death and war, similar in cities the world over? This novel represents a wonderful snapshot of some of these dramas unfolding during the lives of some very different and colourful characters in a vibrant city.

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