Book Review: Two Books by Colum McCann

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Transatlantic, Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

Let the Great World Spin was the best book I read in 2013. The next book I read by Colum McCann (later that same summer) was Zoli, which I also enjoyed a lot. Thirteen Ways of Looking and Transatlantic are McCann’s most recent novels, from 2013 and 2015 respectively, and while they’re both solid, well-written novels, neither engaged me the way my first McCann reads did.

These are two different and unrelated stories but their problem seems similar to me. That is, a lack of tension. That feeling of wanting to rush through to find out what happens while also savouring every word. McCann writes beautifully and has the ability to really ponder and pause over a scene, letting the reader dwell in it to fully realize the world he’s created. He does this particularly well in the section of Transatlantic which focuses on George Mitchell – writing about George Mitchell’s daily life and relationships in manner both sumptuous and realistic. (And bold, considering George Mitchell is a real, still-living person.) But without the drive forward, the stories become meandering and the reader begins to wonder what the point is.

Transatlantic is mostly a historic story, a mix of real and fictional characters. I especially enjoyed the section featuring Frederick Douglass, as well as figuring out the ways the characters connected to each other and to Ireland. (When it comes to McCann, there’s always an Ireland connection.) But when dealing with historical fact, tension can be difficult to sustain because the reader knows how things end.

Thirteen Ways of Looking suffers from a similar problem, although the story and characters are fictional. Here we have J. Mendelssohn, a retired judge – I found myself reminded of George Mitchell but in a much less likeable way – nearing the end of his life, who is shockingly attacked while leaving a restaurant. We don’t know why or who his attacker is and while the story is structured around the investigation, it never felt like that was really what the book was about. It’s about a man at the end of his life, about the collapse of the physical body when it doesn’t match the mind. Perhaps the problem here is that the story felt unfinished to me. McCann does well in creating a lot of depth to the world and characters here but the story ends before much happens to them. Instead, the book moves on to other, unrelated short stories.

I really like McCann’s writing and so I hold him to a high standard. And there is so much potential in each of these books – so much that is well-written, well-drawn, so much possibility of depth – that its shortcomings seem to loom a little higher due to my expectations. I still think Transatlantic and Thirteen Ways of Looking are worth reading but I do hope that his next novel carries a bit more punch.

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