Friday 17 November 2017

Delving deep into the city's grimy underbelly

The Brian Boru Book Club were divided on Colum McCann's novel

Welcome to the Irish Independent Book Club where every month we bring you a compelling reading choice, from crime and mystery novels, to classics and contemporary fiction. Each month, we visit a different book club around the country and get their verdict.

This month's pick is Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann, published by Bloomsbury.


In the dawning light of an August morning in 1974, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers as a mysterious tightrope walker runs, dances and leaps on a wire between the towers.

Meanwhile, some 110 stories down, the lives of eight strangers are spinning towards each other, including the emigrant Corrigan brothers, Claire, a wealthy housewife grieving her son's death in the Vietnam war, streetwalker Tilly, and her reckless daughter Jazzlyn.


Colum McCann was born in Dublin in 1965 and began his career as a journalist in the Irish Press. In the early 1980s he took a bicycle across North America and then worked as a wilderness guide in a programme for juvenile delinquents in Texas. After a year-and-a-half in Japan, he and his wife Allison moved to New York where they currently live with their three children, Isabella, John Michael and Christian.

McCann teaches in Hunter College in New York, in the creative writing programme, with fellow novelists Peter Carey and Nathan Englander.

He is the author of two collections of stories and five novels, including Zoli, Dancer, and This Side of Brightness.

Earlier this year, Let The Great World Spin won the National Book Award, one of the America's most prestigious literary awards.

JJ Abrams, creator of Lost and director of the new Star Trek, is lined up to produce a movie adaptation, while McCann will write the screenplay.


The Brian Boru Book Club is based in Glasnevin, Dublin, and was formed last October when Sheila O'Byrne sent a flyer out around the area looking for members.

There are usually 10-12 people at each meeting -- all women so far -- and they meet on the second Monday of every month in the Brian Boru Pub in Glasnevin. They read everything from fiction to reportage.


The book club ruled that Let The Great World Spin was a challenging novel, but, on the whole, they responded positively to it.

"This is a big book in every respect," said Sheila O'Byrne. "There's an awful lot in it, so much so that I feel I need to read it a second time."

Nuala Collins loved the book. "As readers, we would have no concept of the New York that's depicted here," she said.

"This isn't the glamorous Big Apple; it's the grimy underworld. I felt that all of the characters were so strong, so off-beat, so beyond our experience that it was just fascinating to read. It made a huge impression on me."

Fellow member Maria Gallagher agreed with Nuala. "It's one of the best books I've ever read," she said.

"It's so powerful. There's a thread running through it all connecting the characters. McCann is so good at descriptions that you can almost feel, smell and taste everything in the book."

Not everyone in the group was as effusive in their praise, however.

"I found it hard to follow," admitted Ann Taylor. "It skips over a lot of characters to the extent that they all blended in, and none stood out, except perhaps for the judge, who I really liked. But in general there isn't a lot of joy in the book."

Bernie Clarke was disappointed by the novel's conclusion.

"I thought the characters would all link into together," she said. "I was waiting for the big connection. I also think the book is overlong, and parts of it just didn't strike me as believable. Corrigan was too holier-than-thou."

Maria Gallagher took a different view on the character of radical Irish missionary Corrigan.

"He went to such lengths with everyone else, even forgiving pimps, but never forgave his own father for leaving," she said. "So what kind of priest or pastor was he really if he couldn't forgive those closest to him? There's a real sense of conflict in him."

Frieda Kane applauded one particular segment of the book.

"I loved the phone conversation section where several people are breaking the news of the tightrope walk to one another," she said. "It was very funny, but like all the laughs in this book, it comes with a tinge of sadness.

"As for the rest of the novel, I felt it dragged at the start, but then I really got into it when we met Claire and Gloria. It's mainly a book about women -- strong women too -- which surprised me."

The club praised McCann for getting inside the heads of his female characters.

"The scenes with the group of grieving mothers is so beautifully written," said Bernie Clarke. "I wasn't expecting such sensitivity."

The book club was roughly divided in two as for whether they'd recommend Let The Great World Spin to others.

Breda Temple said: "You need to read it slowly. It's a very carefully written book, and you need to read it that way."

Ann Taylor had the last word. "I think this is definitely one of those novels that you can recommend all you like, but where you really have to read it yourself to make up your own mind about it."

NEXT MONTH'S IRISH INDEPENDENT BOOK CLUB CHOICE is The Group by Mary McCarthy. If your book club would like to take part in our monthly book club feature, or if you are reading next month's choice along with us and would like us to include your thoughts on the book, please contact or Irish Independent Book Club, 27-32 Talbot Street, Dublin 1.

Declan Cashin

Irish Independent

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