Tuesday, May 14, 2013

This Side of Brightness

I became an almost immediate fan of Colum McCann's writing upon first reading his work. His beautiful language combined with his eclectic subject matter--from tightrope walkers to famous Russian dancers--yields fascinating and absorbing results. In This Side of Brightness he deals with two men from different time periods whose lives are both centered around subterranean New York City. During the early part of the twentieth century, Nathan Walker works as a "sandhog", digging train tunnels under the East River. Closer to the present day, a homeless man named Treefrog lives in the underground train tunnels and struggles to maintain his daily existence. McCann alternates between telling each man's story, tightening up the two arcs as the novel progresses until, much like a pendulum slowing down at the end of it's swing, the stories begin to overlap.

As interesting as this novel was to read, it wasn't my favorite of McCann's. To me, his unique subject matter choices in Let the Great World Spin and Dancer enhanced the stories he was telling by serving as unexpected backdrops for universal characters and themes. In This Side of Brightness, I didn't think the story was strong enough to be of equal significance as the quirkier details of the story. Much of my interest in the novel was of a gawking nature, specifically in relation to Treefrog's story. The idea of "mole people" who live underground is such an urban legend that it's hard to look away when it's presented in as much vivid detail as it is here. But if Treefrog, and subsequently Nathan, were separated from that context, I'm not sure they would have enough depth as characters to make me care about them. There's a lot that's engrossing about this novel, and it's worth a read for fans of Colum McCann, but probably not the place to start if you're just trying his work for the first time.


  1. I haven't read Colum McCann, but his books are pretty popular at my library. Let the Great World Spin is always checked out! Would that be the one to read first?
    The subterranean aspects of this sound really intriguing - I love that Cities of the Underworld show on the History Channel. Creepy yet fascinating!

    1. Yes, I would definitely recommend reading Let the Great World Spin if you want to give him a try.



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