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This Side of Brightness by Colum McCann
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's review
Aug 22, 15

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction
Read in May, 2010

McCann’s third book and second novel, This Side of Brightness has a number of things in common with McCann’s most recent novel, the prize winning Let the Great World Spin. Both novels are set in New York; both involve issues of race, class, and immigration; and both novels are testimonies to the fragility and resilience of the human condition. Some people get crushed by circumstance and choice in McCann’s novels and others endure, struggling on, reclaiming hope from ruin’s ashes.

This Side of Brightness has two main narrative threads. One begins in the early 20th century with the digging of the tunnels that will be New York’s subway system and moves forward through the decades, describing the life of sandhogs, the men who dug the tunnels, focusing on one of a trio of survivors who were sucked up from their dig beneath the East River and shot through the muck, mud, and river water to the surface. The other occurs in contemporary New York (late 1990s) and involves a set of characters, mole people, who live in the tunnels. One of the tunnel people, Treefrog, as you suspect from the beginning, will unite the two threads, his backstory revealed over time until it intersects with that of the sandhog families.

The primary sandhog is an African-American named Walker. He marries an Irish-American woman and continues to work with his brawn, though an intelligent man, until his body betrays him and he must then fight through a premature old age to help his troubled son and family. Treefrog was once married and a father, a capable provider, who retreated underground after he either imagined or actually molested his daughter. He has tremendous balance and no fear of heights and for a time worked building skyscrapers, including working on the construction of the World Trade Center. His home underground is high up in the cavernous tunnel near Riverside Park and can only be accessed by climbing and walking along narrow I-beams scores of feet above the tracks.

That image of danger, balance, darkness and light, of being at home in a lost place, pervades the novel. McCann is a canny writer. He gets character and dialogue right and builds a solid narrative that reveals and deepens as the reader advances. His talent is evident on every page and This Side of Brightness is a very good book.
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