I'm continuing on with my belated-St. Patrick's Day Irish theme with a book by Irish writer Colum McCann. He's an author who, in my mind, is akin to Ann Patchett-- both produce consistently good work while tackling an incredibly diverse array of subject matter. McCann's fantastic Let the Great World Spin covers New York City in the 1970s, weaving several story lines together around the feat of Phillipe Petit's tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. In This Side of Brightness, one of his earlier novels that's on my To Read list, he tells the story of an early nineteenth century New Yorker who works underground digging a tunnel that will eventually connect Brooklyn and Manhattan. And in Dancer, he presents a fictionalized account of the life of ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev.
Rather than directly tell the story of Nureyev's life, McCann instead paints a picture of him through the stories of people who played key roles in his life at various points in time. We see Nureyev as a young country boy through the eyes of his family and his first ballet teacher, all left behind after he defects from Soviet Russia. We see the brilliant dancer he becomes through the eyes of his most famous partner, Margot Fonteyn, and the flamboyant and temperamental side of his celebrity through the eyes of his loyal but frequently put upon housekeeper. The only time we experience something close to Nureyev's own voice is in several sections of what can best be described as a series of random thoughts. Less formal than journal entries, these sections feel like a peek at a random sampling of post-it notes on which Nureyev had jotted down things he wanted to remember, ranging from mundane reminders to profound revelations.
This jumping around among voices and styles doesn't necessarily make for the most pleasant reading experience, but it does have an interesting effect. Instead of creating a fictional biography told from a single point of view, McCann has created a portrait of Nureyev that's constantly shifting and at times even at odds with itself. Each perspective shows Nureyev in a different way, making it hard to know which comes closest to the truth. In taking this approach, McCann leaves the reader feeling like an outsider looking in, essentially recreating the way the public viewed Nureyev in real life after he rose to fame.