A Great Novel to Spin Your World

let-the-great-world-spinAfter its 2009 National Book Award, you hardly need my praise to bring Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann, to your attention. But I’ve just finished reading it myself, and I can’t let a book that carries this much emotional force, this much scope–and all in 350 pages–pass without comment. It’s a perfect choice for book groups and a book that Big Read and One Book, One Community programs should consider.

This is a New York story, and it takes the city back to 1974, on the day that Philippe Petit sneaked into the new World Trade Center building with friends, strung a cable between the two, and spent a few amazing hours walking a tightrope in the sky. In McCann’s narrative, this is a jumping-off point and a symbol for the tenuous balance that must be maintained by all of the city’s residents as they negotiate life.

McCann explores a dozen different points of view, including the tightrope walker; an emigre Irish Jesuit, his brother, and the single Columbian mother for whom he falls; a mother/daughter pair of Bronx prostitutes; a Park Avenue woman, her judge husband, and their son, an early computer expert sent to Vietnam; a photographer of underground graffiti; and a Bronx woman who has lost three sons in Vietnam. These characters touch in surprising ways on each other’s lives, brief but profound moments of connection that prove the destruction of some, the solace of others. McCann reminds readers that even the darkest tragedies can contain the seeds of new hope.

Although McCann never speaks of it directly, his tale also symbolically evokes the 2001 destruction of the Two Towers, that other terrible event that connected so many New Yorkers, Americans, and people around the world, reminding us of the brittle ties that connect us all and the precarious ways in which our lives perch in the balance on those connections.

These are great character sketches. Every one of McCann’s narrators is fully realized, capable of carrying his or her own book. His language soars, with almost every page containing startling original and beautiful turnsof phrase. His 1970s setting both reminds one of how drastically the world has changed in 35 years, and demonstrates how the cycles of history bring us back to the same basic dilemmas again and again.

Let the Great World Spin is one of the great literary accomplishments of our era. Don’t miss it.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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