by Colum McCann
Picador/ Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1998
This Side of Brightness is not an easy read. Though it’s an important one. As are all the books I’ve read by Colum McCann.
This is my third. The first one – Let the Great World Spin (a National Book Award winner) was sheer genius. Set in New York at the time of Phillipe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers the novel tells of the interconnecting lives of those who all witnessed Petit’s feat. Evoking for the reader – stories of interconnecting lives in the aftermath of 9/11 . Ingenious.
The second one was Zoli – which invited us to consider the pligt of the Romani/ Gypsy people. The discrimination against them, their own traditions that would prevent them from pleading their own case, believing it is shameful, even dangerous to let others know too much about them.
This Side of Brightness flashes between present and past – 1991 and the early 1900’s. Between Treefrog who lives beneath the streets in the tunnels, one of the mentally unbalanced homeless the police call “moles” and Nathan Walker who dug those tunnels. Tells the stories of the immigrants who manually dug the tunnels for the New York subways – sandhogs they were called – stories of hardship, poverty, bad luck and limited opportunity generation after generation.
But hope too. Hope and love and loyalty and daring to believe in “resurrection.”
I told my daughter and son-in-law the other day about these people who live beneath the streets – and they were shocked. Kept saying – You mean they live there now? In New York? Now?
This is what Colum McCann does best. Takes us by the hand. Leads us where we’d never go on our own. Does his research. Gives us the history. Gives us possible cause. Uses his poetic talent (for he is a fine poet) – to describe lives and living in a way we can’t forget. Never again able to say, “What? Now? ”
One line I don’t want to forget: “The tunnel is like a doubtful church, letting in light at strategic points and leaving the rest in shadows. ” (p.66)