Review by

Let the Great World Spin

On edge in New York City

In August 1974, a tightrope walker crossed between the World Trade Center towers as police and pedestrians watched incredulously from below. It’s the starting point for Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, a novel which follows the lives of different New Yorkers, all living on the edge one way or another. Their lives intersect in unexpected ways that day in August, weaving together destinies and showing how we’re all connected. It’s as much a novel about New York as it is about New Yorkers and a moving love letter to a city which was just emerging from the trauma of the 9/11 terror attacks when McCann wrote it.

First out are Irish brothers Corrigan and Ciaran. Corrigan, a priest, has left Dublin for the Bronx where he has dedicated his life to saving prostitutes. It’s a rough and dangerous task which yields limited results but Corrigan, whose strong sense of duty borders on the compulsive, won’t budge, no matter how much Ciaran begs him to find a new purpose.

Then there is Claire, an heiress and the wife of successful prosecutor Solomon Sonderberg, who lives a seemingly enviable life in a luxurious Park Avenue apartment filled with valuable art. Claire, who is deeply depressed and adrift after the loss of her only son in the Vietnam War, seeks solace in a group of women who’ve been through the same. Fitting in is not easy, though, her social class and subtle racism standing in the way.

There’s a host of other characters: Tillie and Jazzlyn, a mother-daughter team of hookers, have constant run-ins with the police and drift in and out of prison. Corrigan’s attempts at rescuing them from prostitution and heroin addiction fail time and time again; Coke snorting, trustafarians, Blaine and Lara, pretending to be artists in the Village; phone hackers and taggers.

On the day of the tightrope walk, all these characters converge in unexpected ways. Suffice to say that it’s not only the walker who is on edge. All the characters are struggling with something: be it grief, drug abuse, violence, abandonment or death. And just like New York City in the 1970s (a troubled decade) and our tightrope walker, they are somehow on the precipice.

Let the Great World Spin was published in 2008 and the presence of the World Trade Center in the novel is not coincidental. It’s personal for McCann: his father-in-law miraculously escaped from the 59th floor of the North Tower. It’s a hopeful novel with redemption at the end and ultimately a message that we’re all in this together, as New Yorkers found out in the aftermath of 9/11.

Are you a New York City fan? If so, perhaps you want to try some of these novels? The Long-Winded Lady by Maeve Brennan,  A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, The Tenants of Moonbloom by Edward Lewis Wallant.

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