This is one of those diamond books: rare, sparkling, a gem in any light. It is also a difficult book to talk about because it is woven from so many different strands of narratives, characters, themes and emotions. McCann is a genius, that much is clear. His book pays homage to the notion that we all exist in some way connected to one another, each “reassured by the presence of one another.”
McCann starts with the image of a man walking across a tightrope strung illegally between the World Trade Centre Towers… “Those who saw him hushed.” As readers we are stilled too, because as a post 9/11 audience those towers have a significance beyond themselves, connoting loss, danger, terror, everything that is evil in our world. But, here is a man, defying the imagination of New Yorkers, attempting the impossible, balancing with a pole on a thin rope mid-air, dancing – much like McCann himself is doing in this telling. The emotion of this vision is indicative of the emotion that runs throughout this book and McCann has crafted his tale to engage with readers on even the most uncomfortable of levels: “many of the watchers realised with a shiver that no matter what they say, they really wanted to witness a great fall.”
From the Towers, audiences are transported to Dublin, into the lives of a pair of brothers who take us into their family travails and then back to New York City where they are reunited in unusual circumstances. The relationship between these brothers is so dense that it is difficult to describe. Says one of the other:
“He was at the origin of things and I now had a meaning for my brother – he was a crack of light under the door, and the door was shut to him. Only bits and pieces of him would leak out and he would end up barricaded behind that which he had penetrated. Maybe it was entirely his own fault. Maybe he welcomed the complications: he had created them purely because he needed them to survive.”
The brothers are individuals, yet at the same time so connected that it isn’t until the novel’s end that readers realise the extent of their commitment to each other.
“And I kept thinking that we were all children once, maybe I could return. That’s what echoed in my head. Go back to being a child. Sprint along the strand there. Up past the tower. Run along the wall. I wanted that sort of joy. Make it simple again. I was trying, really trying, to pray, get rid of my lust, return to the good, rediscover that innocence. Circles of circles. And when you go around in circles, brother, the world is very big, but if you plow straight ahead it’s small enough. I wanted to fall along the spokes to the centre of the circle, where there was no movement. I can’t explain it, man. It was like I was staring at the ceiling, waiting for the sky. All this banging was still going on outside the door. Then hours of silence.”
It is hard to pinpoint what this novel is actually about in thematic terms. Certainly it is about family, about love, loss, war, triumph… but, it is also about sacrifice and turmoil, about desperation, and of course, about New York City and its particular flavour. Mostly, it is about life: “I sit there thinking about how much courage it takes to live an ordinary life.” Life and the inherent need for people to feel valued and valuable, despite their infinite mundaneness. “The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.”
“Funny how it was, everyone perched in their own little world with the deep need to talk, each person with their own tale, beginning in some strange middle point, then trying so hard to tell it all, to have it all make sense, logical and final.”
One of the magical things about this book is McCann’s way with language and his ability to string these marvellous sentences together, totally submerging readers in the music of his prose. I think that this is one of the reasons that this book is so miraculous, why it left me spinning, almost drowning. There are many passages which illustrate McCann’s skill. I have chosen just one:
“Some people think love is the end of the road, and if you’re lucky enough to find it, you stay there. Other people say it just becomes a cliff you drive off, but most people who’ve been around awhile know it’s just a thing that changes day by day, and depending on how much you fight for it, you get it, or you hold on to it, or you lose it, but sometimes it’s never even there in the first place.”
In case it isn’t clear, I loved this book, I love this author, I love these characters. I am desperate to go back and start the book all over again and to reel in the genius of the narrative and the way it is crafted. I will definitely be reading more from this author and if you like being spun out by a genius then I highly recommend that you plunge in to this one without a moment’s hesitation!