06 June 2010

Book Club - my review

Let The Great World Spin is a collage of stories, or a patchwork maybe, but all the stories and lives intersect, they are linked by the man on the wire who draws the eyes to an epicentre of New York, and also links the stories of then with the stories of now.

What drew me in immediately was the mastery and craft of the writer, the moments of breathtaking lucidity, when the words suddenly mean so much more than they seem to at first:

Rather, it was the manshape that held them there, their necks craned, torn between the promise of doom and the disappointment of the ordinary. (Page 1)

From the beginning, the wire and the man who tower over New York are introduced, and on page 6 a time yet to come is foreseen, when bodies fell from those towers:

“many of the watchers realized with a shiver that no matter what they said, they really wanted to witness a great fall, see someone arc downward all that distance, to disappear from the sight line, flail, smash to the ground…

The book’s structure is clever and works very well: each story is introduced as a chapter (book)  Book one starts in Ireland  with the Corrigan brothers.  Book 2 introduces Claire, who has lost a son in the Vietnam war (echoes of Iraq and Afghanistan. In Claire’s story, the present and the past are weaved throughout the day.

Each time, with each story, the background is set, but when it comes to the characters, the reader is surprised, never more than with Claire’s story; this rich, educated, feminist woman who lives on Park Avenue is expecting a group of friends, and while the reader at first expects a group of intellectuals or ladies who lunch, grief is what happens.

Whereas the book, and the plot are ostensibly about a day in New York, about lives drawn together by chance or fate, and also about a day much later in New York, when lives were also drawn together by fate, I also read many other things in the story.

There was a theme of fitting in, or not fitting in. Corrigan, the pure of heart, tries to fit in with the poor and the lost, cannot fit in with the brothers of his order.  The Irish who do and don’t fit in New York, the two white men who stand out in the projects, Claire who doesn’t fit in to the group of women, she is too rich, too different.  And yet all of them fit in New York, are part of that city on that day.

It’s a story about memory, memories, and memories not yet lived – the end of the book brings us to the present time, and whereas it is no “happy ever after” ending, there is a release and resolution of sorts.  There are memories within the book, from the occasional narrator (Corrigan’s brother):

“I can still after all these years sit in the museum of those afternoons and recall the light spilling over the carpet.”

There are memories from grieving mothers who meet to remember and tell the stories of their dead sons.

The book is about death and memory: there are  echoes of deaths in the twin towers and memories of that day now embedded in a day that came before, it is about death and the power of stories .

“Photographs keep the dead alive, the girl had said. Not true. So much more than photographs. So much more. “

about death and grief:

“The simple things come back to us. They rest for a moment by our ribcages then suddenly reach in and twist our hearts a notch backwards.”

The book is also about family:: Corrigan and his brother, Claire and her son, the mothers and their sons, Gloria and the girls she fosters, who are also the daughters of one of the main characters,  and Jazzlyn and Tillie, the mother-and-daughter prostitutes.

Family is like water – it has a memory of what it once filled, always trying to get back to the original stream.

The book is about God, religion, and moral dilemmas. Corrigan’s  brother remembers a myth he once heard about 36 hidden saints and the hidden saint, the forgotten one:

“Corrigan had lost his line with God: he bore the sorrows on his own, the story of stories.”

It’s a book about life, death, love, grief, family, redemption, and New York.  There is so much there, so much to talk about,  that as a book club read, it would demand a long conversation, about the characters, the story, the writing, the themes, and this is a conversation that I hope we may have if our book club members meet in person

It is one of the best books I read this year, and my friends and family can expect it as a present if they haven’t read it yet…. And if this review is all over the place, it’s because I’m away and wrote it from notes I had taken, and I will end it with a quote which I loved:

“he said something strange about words being good for saying what things are, but sometimes they don’t function for what things aren’t.”


Lorna said...

I agree it has wonderful language and you have selected many beautiful quotes in your review. As you'll see from my review, I was irritated by much of the book but like you, I found the language beautiful.

Made Marian said...

I wouldn't say I loved the book as much as you did Cathy but I completely agree about the language, I don't often appreciate it in a book but I really noticed it here. I love the quotes you've chosen too.

Photographe à Dublin said...

It is a very visual book and the reference quoted about photography is very topical.

Memory, photography and art are so interlinked.
This is also a strong theme in "Winterland" by Alan Glynn, a book that would be well worth reviewing at a future date.

Thank you for sharing such an interesting post.

Kirsty said...

Great review - and I'm glad you liked it! We seem to be in the minority! I loved it - and like you I loved the writing even when the storylines weren't at their strongest. McCann is simply a dazzling writer. I didn't pick up on the theme of fitting in, as you did, and you're so right. New York is an unforgiving character in the book.

Lily said...

Cathy, loved your review including your quotations. I also found exactly what you said, when writing this review - There is so much there, so much to talk about. This was much more than with any of the previous books we've read for the BBC.

I have now given it to my husband to read and am interested to see how he finds it.

Thanks for posting my review. I'm glad that we found common ground with this book :)

Catherine said...

Cathy - that's a great review and an interesting way to approach it by looking at how all the diversity still fits into NY, a place of infinite diversity. I loved the book though I found it tough going at times and was ambivalent about some of the characters, I found his beautiful writing lets him off the hook on a lot of other little gripes. just realised his book was the Irish Times book Club book for May - didn't comment on it there as I did for Brooklyn earlier on - but there's a Q&A piece on him in Saturday's weekend section. must find it and link it.

Lily said...

I’m adding a comment to all BBC members blogs to say that our June book is ‘The Children’s Book’ by A.S. Byatt to post on the first Sunday in July. Our next book then is ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ by Barbara Kingsolver. Enjoy reading :)