Book Review – Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann

The watchers below pulled in their breath all at once. The air felt suddenly shared. The man above was a word they seemed to know, though they had not heard it before. Out he went.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann is a bold and vibrant novel exploring the lives of eight very different main characters, whose storylines weave and collide in various ways as tightrope artist Philippe Petit walks the New York skies above their heads. Taking the day Petit walked a line between the Twin Towers, August 7th 1974, as not a focal point but a binding point in the backdrop, McCann moves back and forth between his characters, giving us more about their backstories and drawing us through New York’s pulsing heart as their stories unfold beneath Petit. Petit himself even gets a few chapters, conjuring an image of what he might have been like in his youth, and drawing us into his prep in the build up to that first step out over the edge.

The novel opens building great tension, and creating a wonderful sense of the hustle and bustle of New York, which becomes a character in its own right. McCann has such a wonderful way of conjuring the city – a city I absolutely love anyway – and the stories unfolding in it, through these completely different voices each experiencing life here in their own way. His writing is at times bold and scintillating, but also at times more lilting and lyrical. McCann has lived in New York for years and this shines through in his detailed observations of the city, from all angles and neighbourhoods, through such a kaleidoscope of perspectives; from the softly spoken and timid Claire who is smothered by grief since her son died in Vietnam, and her husband Solomon working as a judge in the city courts, to the words of hooker Tillie, so fiery and full of heart, and her reckless daughter Jazzlyn, raised on a diet of unfulfilled promises. From Gloria, who is holding her head high despite years of hardship, to Lara the young artist suffocating in a destructive marriage. From Fernando, who takes us down in the flashing tunnels of the subway, a staple and iconic element of any New York story, on his quest to find the most elusive city graffiti, to Corrigan, the radical Irish monk in the heart of the Bronx to whom the prostitutes flock. 

As each struggles with their own troubles, Petit twirls up above, free from constraint. I loved this book; there is just so much heart and character in it; so many small but meaningful moments of humanity displayed between the most unexpected of characters in this big, beautiful beast of a city.


Let The Great World Spin was published in 2009 by Bloomsbury.


Colum McCann is the author of seven novels, three collections of stories and two works of non-fiction. Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, he has been the recipient of many international honours, including the U.S National Book Award, the International Dublin Literary Prize, a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from the French government, election to the Irish arts academy, several European awards, the 2010 Best Foreign Novel Award in China, and an Oscar nomination. In 2017 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts.  His work has been published in over 40 languages.  He is the President and co-founder of the non-profit global story exchange organisation, Narrative 4. He is the Thomas Hunter Writer in Residence in Hunter College, in New York, where he lives with his wife Allison and their family.  His most recent novel, Apeirogon, became an immediate New York Times best-seller and won several major international awards.  His first major non-fiction book, American Mother, will be published in January 2024.

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