Friday, October 9, 2015

Book Review: "Thirteen Ways of Looking" by Colum McCann

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Random House for making it available!

Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin was a highly heralded, award-winning novel that I never could get into. I tried several separate times to read it and could never get past the first few pages. But seeing so many glowing reviews of his new short story collection, Thirteen Ways of Looking, from a number of Goodreads friends whose opinions I value, I thought I needed to give this a shot. Haven't we all struggled to read at least one critically acclaimed book out there?

There were moments when reading the title novella which opened the collection that I wondered if for some reason McCann's writing was somehow impenetrable to me. The story of the last morning in the life of a retired judge (he doesn't know that, of course), which juxtaposed his reflections on his career, his late wife, his family, and the miseries of old age with the investigation into his death had flashes of brilliance, but I found the character a little too pompous and long-winded. After a while I grew weary of his verbosity, but the tautness of the other half of the story kept me from giving up on this collection. I also found the ending a little disappointing, but McCann's writing was at once both vivid and languid.

The three remaining stories in this collection are absolutely exquisite. I honestly don't know which of them I loved the most, because each had such beautiful, moving moments. "What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?" is two stories in one—a bird's eye view into the creative process of a writer as they develop a short story, little by little, and the actual story itself as it unfolds, a tale about a young Marine in Afghanistan planning to call home when the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve. (But it is so much more.) "Sh'khol" tells the story of a mother whose biggest nightmare appears to come true when her deaf son disappears early one morning while they are vacationing together in Ireland, and she fears the worst. In "Treaty," an elderly nun must confront a tragic period of her life that occurred more than 35 years before, when she catches a glimpse of a suddenly familiar man on television.

McCann's use of language and imagery is breathtaking at times, and I found these three stories in particular immensely moving and memorable. I almost wish each was as long as the title novella, as I wanted more time with these characters and their stories. What's even more amazing is the fact that McCann himself was assaulted while writing this collection, and as he reflects in the afterword, some stories were written before the incident and some after.

As he puts it, "For all its imagined moments, literature works in unimaginable ways." I'd agree completely. So much of this book touched me in many, many ways, and I am grateful for the opportunity to read it.

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