A Balancing Act – Colum McCann’s “Let The Great World Spin”

Angela Butler

We have all heard that life is full of surprises. Many of us are taught to deal with these surprises from a young age: bring an umbrella in case it starts to pour or purchase health insurance in case we break our bones. Despite that, life works on its own terms and we can never be too sure no matter what. On the days when things happen that throw you off balance and you suddenly feel alone or overwhelmed, put on some shoes and find “Let The Great World Spin.” This is the book to read if you need a little something to remind you of the greater picture, to remind yourself that you are significant in the grand scheme of things.

Inspired by the Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire” as well as Philippe Petit’s own memoir about his fascinating tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974, “Let The Great World Spin” is one of the most heartfelt and beautifully written novels I have read in a long time. Petit’s stunt momentarily captivates the city of New York and McCann uses that moment as the heart of a complex web of stories about a group of people from all walks of life who find themselves knowingly — as well as unknowingly — affecting each other. As you turn the pages, you will meet an artist caught in a hit-and-run scenario, a pair of beautiful prostitutes who are also mother and daughter, a Guatemalan nurse, a Park Avenue mother crippled with grief, a radical young Irish monk and a thirty-eight year old grandmother, among many other memorable characters. The individual stories intertwine and weave so well together that it doesn’t take long to realize just how interconnected the stories are. To put it simply, the novel will make you think about how life is a series of events, each with its own consequence which leads to yet another unique event.

To some, however, the novel may seem jumpy and jarring. McCann constantly changes voices and narrative styles as he shifts from character to character. To others, the characters may seem too one-dimensional. Despite that, McCann’s diction and lyricism are enough to you a different perspective on what has happened since the collapse of the Twin Towers. Though ambitious in its attempt to bring back the painful memories associated with 9/11, “Let The Great World Spin” provides solace for those still lost in a whirlwind of grief.

This novel is a testament to the power of literature and its ability to both rip open old wounds and heal them over. In spite of the overwhelming sadness associated with these characters’ lives, you will leave satisfied and reassured about how different and important each life and each character’s personal story is. You will be reminded that it is okay to be a flawed and vulnerable human being. We all are.