Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin had been on my ‘waiting to be read’ pile for two years. It came so highly recommended by two writer friends, and had won so many prizes, that I kept avoiding it - What if it’s not as good as they say?
Finally, in early April, it reached the top of the pile. It did not disappoint. It is, in all respects, a high-wire act. With its large cast of characters it adds up to a revealing portrait of New York City. It’s also a subtle post-9/11 book.
Set mainly in 1974, what holds the stories of these, seemingly, unrelated people together is how each is affected by the astonishing performance of the real life Philippe Petit. The Frenchman actually walked on a high wire flung between the, then, newly-built twin towers on 7 August 1974.
In the first half of the book we meet the disparate characters including, a radical priest, a group of hookers, a young artist with a drug problem, a group of women whose sons have died in Vietnam, a judge, a teenage photographer. The chapters could almost read as stand-alone short stories, but we begin to glimpse how they connect to Petit’s sky walk. And, several of these characters are walking their own emotional tightrope.
Around the mid-point of the book, McCann takes us inside the world of Petit as he prepares for his audacious act. McCann’s blending of fact and fiction is seamless. The book continues with more episodes from the lives of each main character, revealing how the some of them have permeated each other’s lives.
The ending, I will say nothing about, but definitely earns its keep, rounding the book off with a thoughtful and satisfying thunk. The characters lingered with me long after I’d finished reading.
I now find other friends who’ve been on to McCann for some time, leaving me wondering - how did I miss him? But I’m delighted to find that he has a substantial backlist. Plus, I look forward to reading this book again. I’m curious – how he did pull off that dazzling structure?