Bloomsbury £18.99 (351p) £17.09 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Let the Great World Spin, By Colum McCann

One of the great intriguing truisms about American life is the way that, for all our inherent social conservatism, we are still always dazzled by anyone who engages in a high-wire act. Being a country which promotes the cult of rugged individualism alongside a corporate ethic which so profoundly encourages conformism, the United States has always exulted in acts of derring-do which astound and confound. Whether it be the kid who wins eight gold medals in an Olympic swimming pool, or that neo-fascist who survived the first solo transatlantic flight, or that "one small step for mankind" moment on our lunar sphere, Americans love saluting anyone who, so to speak, defies gravity.

Which is why, in August 1974, when a French acrobat with the nom juste of Philippe Petit stepped out on to a cable stretched between the two towers of Manhattan's World Trade Centre, the nation was gobsmacked. This was a dance with death that was also pure acrobatic art. Or, at Colum McCann so elegantly encapsulates this event in his wonderful new novel, "Within seconds he was pureness moving, and he could do anything he liked. He was inside and outside his body at the same time, indulging in what it meant to belong to the air, no future, no past, and this gave him the offhand vaunt to walk... The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air".

McCann himself is a writer who doesn't fear high-wire acts. Whether it be his brilliant reinvention of the life and times of Rudolph Nureyev in Dancer (a stunningly realised novel that eschewed all the the easy temptations of biographical fiction), or recreating the world of sandhogs - tunnel diggers - in turn-of-the century New York in This Side of Brightness, or bringing us into the life and times of a Romani gypsy (and plunging us into the tragedy of Eastern Europe from the 1930s onwards) in Zoli, he has always shown himself to be a writer aware of history's strange pirouettes and the primacy of an individual story amid the chaotic rhythms of a given age.

Though McCann was only nine, and living in Dublin, when Petit made his Twin Towers high-wire walk in 1974, it is a testament to his skill as a novelist that he so brilliantly captures the sense of urban malaise and general metropolitan meltdown that characterised New York during this era.

I speak as a native Manhattanite who came of age at that time. Indeed, Let The Great World Spin could best be described as a state-of-the-nation novel which eschews large historic brushstrokes in favour of the interior worlds of citizens trying to make it through their own little hells.

There's a newly arrived emigrant from Dublin named Ciaran Corrigan - whose brother John is both a member of a religious order and a man who, courtesy of his life in the meanest streets of the Bronx, is on a veritable collision course with his own formidable demons.

There's a Park Avenue matron - brilliantly educated, but living in her own luxurious bubble (her husband is a noted judge) - struggling with the death of her only child in Vietnam (not even a soldier, but something of a computer whizz) and finding herself crossing the city's economic divides in search of other mothers who have lost a child to that war. There is an artist - caught between her once-hip downtown credentials and her new-found ascetic life in a Thoreau-like, electricity-less conditions beyond the city limits - whose life randomly (and violently) intersects with the Corrigan brothers. And there is Tillie Henderson alias Miss Bliss alias Puzzle alias Rosa P. alias Sweetcakes - a hooker who also has a connection with that Irish monk who called the Bronx his parish.

What is so admirable about McCann's novel is its canny construction - and the way he is able to interweave these tales (and the wildly disparate worlds they represent) with a stylistic aplomb that never comes across as flamboyant or attention-seeking. More tellingly he is that rare species in contemporary fiction: a literary writer who is an exceptional storyteller. This novel never trumpets itself as a metropolitan kaleidoscope, but prefers the quiet intimacy of personal suffering.

It's a portrait of an era that never flashes its sizeable historical research, but shrewdly uses telling nuance and detail to render so perfectly early-1970s New York, and a narrative which interprets the folly of one man on a high wire as a metaphor for the way we all somehow play out our personal follies and sadnesses. Put baldly: this is an exceptional performance by a writer whose originality and profound humanity is evident throughout this highly original and wondrous novel.

Douglas Kennedy's 'Leaving the World', published here by Hutchinson, was the bestselling foreign novel in France this spring and summer

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker