Books: History without the Betsy factor

THIS SIDE OF BRIGHTNESS by Colum McCann, Phoenix House pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
THE TERM "historical novel" conjures up images of spirited, blushing heroines, with eminently rippable bodices, called things like Betsy or Elsie. There isn't a bodice or a Betsy in sight here: McCann's accomplished new novel is vivid, potent, beautifully measured, and sustained by astonishingly deft description.

Set in New York, it follows the declining fortunes of a mixed-race family descended from black and Irish immigrant miners. Its catalyst is an accident so bizarre and horrifying that anyone who reads it will be unable to pass easily through a river tunnel again: a hole appears in the wall of the tunnel in which four men are digging, "the size of a fist, then a heart, then a head". Because the air in the tunnel is pressurised, they are forced out, up through the riverbed, through the freezing river itself and are blown upwards on a "huge brown geyser" 25 feet high. The body of the Irish miner O'Leary is never found, but his death shapes the rest of the novel - seen mostly through the eyes of his black colleague, Walker, who eventually marries his daughter - and the lives of its characters, suggesting that we are not merely related to our forebears, but to their formative experiences as well.

Interspersed with the unfolding of Walker's life is a seemingly separate present-day narrative about Treefrog, a homeless man who lives in the network of subway tunnels in New York. Dictated by odd obsessions with balance and evenness (he can balance on a narrow ledge 10 feet off the ground but must always land on an even number of steps), his life centres around avoiding frostbite and rousing the memories of his wife and daughter. The whole book could be seen as a gradual disentangling of Treefrog's lost identity. Objects in this book are not extraneous things, but chains dragging characters back to the past - and not necessarily their own. A "flying moth" reminds Walker of a time with his dead wife; Treefrog frees a dead crane from the ice in the opening pages, a bird which represents the Southern American childhoods of his mother and grandfather; the "ochre" colour of Treefrog's daughter's dress echoes his great-grandmother's recollection of the "fields of Roscommon".

So how does McCann manage it, without ever straying into Betsy territory? His fluid, eidetic present-tense narrative elevates the novel to something far beyond most accounts of family histories. He is an attentive and alert narrator, illuminating events with unignorable details: as the miners are lowered into the river, he brings our attention to the "whine of the compression machine from underground. It's a long hard sound that will soon become nothing in his ears ..." When Treefrog first sees the woman with whom he falls in love, we are told: "if, at that time, [he] had made a map of the beats of his heart, the contours would have been so close together that the lines would almost have touched one another in the steepest and finest of gradations."

By the end of the book, you will know how to create a mass card daguerrotype from an old wedding photo, how to draw a detailed map of a person's face on graph paper, how to locate an underground shower, how to dig a large underground tunnel (don't try this one at home, at least not without a consenting, adult hydraulic engineer in the room). You will also have read a wonderful book, and absorbed a strange new theory on inheritance, genealogy and personal history.