As part of my prize for the 10 Days of Dooyoo competition which took place in the run up to Christmas, I received a book. I love reading so I was very excited about this!
The book I received was This Side of Brightness by Colum McCann. I had never heard of this book or the author, but a quick search on Amazon revealed that the novel was originally published in 1998. The author is originally from Dublin and now lives in New York, and has had several other novels and short stories published. He has won numerous literary awards and this particular novel has received highly positive reviews on Amazon so I was hoping to enjoy it.
The novel itself is quite short, only around 250 pages. I read it on the bus to and from work, and it only took me a couple of days.
This Side of Brightness is set in New York and opens in 1916 with a group of tunnel diggers who are responsible for creating the maze of underground tunnels throughout New York City, later to be used by the subway system. One worker, Nathan Walker, notices a hole appear in the side of the tunnel and the air pressure sucks him and several other workers up and out of the tunnel, through the river bed, and into the river to be thrown in the air by a plume of water. The consequences of this accident will change his life and set of the novel's train of events. Many years later, a homeless man called Treefrog makes his home under the city in these very same tunnels.
The story and the setting were unusual and the opening event stuck in my mind. I was immediately interested in the novel and wanted to know what happened next. The novel goes backwards and forwards in time, jumping between Nathan's and Treefrog's stories and I had no trouble following the flow of events or differentiating between them, which is a mark of skill on the part of the author.
Nathan's story I found fascinating, particularly the conflict resulting from his relationship, as a black man, with his white wife. I learnt a lot about attitudes to racism and multi-racial relationships in early to mid-20th century America and felt very thankful that society has largely moved on! I didn't find Treefrog's story quite so compelling. In fact, I was frequently disappointed when I reached the end of Nathan's sections and came back to the modern day. Perhaps this is because I felt the story of the past was more developed and interesting from a historical point of view. I was impressed that one half of the novel covered a span of fifty years, while the other covered only a few days, and yet they both flowed very well. I grew more interested in Treefrog's story as the book went on and I began to understand how he was linked to Nathan.
I thought the book was very well written and the author managed to convey what it was like to work in the tunnels, live as a homeless person, and go through life in mid-20th century New York. The main characters were very well drawn, but some of the other characters weren't portrayed in as much detail as I would have liked. To be fair in a 250 page book this wasn't really possible.
I wasn't really sure if I was going to enjoy this book, but I did and I might look for other books by this author. I wouldn't describe it as a favourite, and would have liked to see some of the characters fleshed out more. Also, I didn't find the Treefrog sections quite as interesting as Nathan's story, particularly at first. However, I found the book to be an enjoyable read that dealt with twentieth-century life in New York, racism and the role of workmen in creating the city, and I would recommend it.