Let the Great World Spin, By Colum McCann

Lesley McDowell
Sunday 25 July 2010 00:00 BST

Colum McCann's novel was described variously as "the first great 9/11 novel", "a pre-9/11 novel" and "a 9/11 allegory" when it was published last year. Its 1974 New York setting (the time and place of the completion of the Twin Towers) and its central event (a piece of performance art: the tightrope walk between the towers by the French high-wire artist Philippe Petit) allude to the atrocity of 9/11. But McCann's novel never explicitly makes the connection: he doesn't need to point it out, and his nod to the reader's intelligence ripples through the book.

Before the Ed Koch clean-up and serious money took over, New York was a grimy, sordid place to be, as Irish immigrant John Corrigan soon finds out. McCann begins his all-encompassing tale with a still, small noise: the two young Corrigan brothers listening to the radio with their mother in 1950s Dublin. Both flee to New York when their mother dies, one to become a priest who works with junkies and prostitutes, the other in search of that adored elder brother.

In contrast with the Corrigans, Claire Soderburg is living a more insulated life on the Upper East Side, except that her son has been killed in Vietnam. On the day the elder Corrigan dies in a car crash, she is showing her friends around her apartment: the friends belong to a support group for mothers of men killed in the war.

Meanwhile, Lara Liveman is haunted by the car crash in which Corrigan died, because her artist husband caused it, and she told him to flee the scene.

McCann does more than simply link disparate lives: he evokes this particular period in the 20th century better than almost anyone else has ever done. No need for name-dropping, no need for signposting: this novel breathes the 1970s in a way lesser writers can only dream about. It really is a superlative work.

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