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Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

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In such acclaimed novels as Let the Great World Spin and TransAtlantic, National Book Award–winning author Colum McCann has transfixed readers with his precision, tenderness, and authority. Now, in his first collection of short fiction in more than a decade, McCann charts the territory of chance, and the profound and intimate consequences of even our smallest moments.

“As it was, it was like being set down in the best of poems, carried into a cold landscape, blindfolded, turned around, unblindfolded, forced, then, to invent new ways of seeing.”

In the exuberant title novella, a retired judge reflects on his life’s work, unaware as he goes about his daily routines that this particular morning will be his last. In “Sh’khol,” a mother spending Christmas alone with her son confronts the unthinkable when he disappears while swimming off the coast near their home in Ireland. In “Treaty,” an elderly nun catches a snippet of a news report in which it is revealed that the man who once kidnapped and brutalized her is alive, masquerading as an agent of peace. And in “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” a writer constructs a story about a Marine in Afghanistan calling home on New Year’s Eve.

Deeply personal, subtly subversive, at times harrowing, and indeed funny, yet also full of comfort, Thirteen Ways of Looking is a striking achievement. With unsurpassed empathy for his characters and their inner lives, Colum McCann forges from their stories a profound tribute to our search for meaning and grace. The collection is a rumination on the power of storytelling in a world where language and memory can sometimes falter, but in the end do not fail us, and a contemplation of the healing power of literature.

Praise for Thirteen Ways of Looking

“The irreducible mystery of human experience ties this small collection together, and in each of these stories McCann explores that theme in some strikingly effective ways. . . . [The first story] is as fascinating as it is poignant. . . . [The second] captures the mundane and mysterious aspects of shaping characters from the gray clay of words, placing them in realistic settings and breathing life into their lungs. . . . That he makes the story so emotionally compelling is a sign of his genius. . . . The most remarkable [piece] is Sh’khol. . . . Caught in the rushing currents of this drama, you know you’re reading a little masterpiece.”—The Washington Post

“McCann is a writer of power and subtlety and beauty. . . . The powerful title story loiters in the mind long after you’ve read it.”—Sarah Lyall, The New York Times

“[McCann] unspools complex and unforgettable stories in this, his first collection in more than a decade.”—The Boston Globe

“McCann is a passionate writer whose impulse is always toward a generous understanding of his diverse characters.”—The Wall Street Journal

“McCann’s characters in this new work—whether nuns or judges or writers—are mostly ordinary people encountering extraordinary situations often touched by loss. Powerful, profound, and deeply empathetic, McCann’s beautifully wrought writing in Thirteen Ways of Looking glides off the page.”—BuzzFeed

“In just three short stories and one novella, McCann weaves the magic that made Let the Great World Spin so acclaimed—especially in one brilliant short piece of metafiction in which the process of writing a story becomes interwoven with the story created.”—The Huffington Post

From the Hardcover edition.

Review

The book starts with a Novella length tale. The title of this tale and the collection taken from a poem by Wallace Stevens, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,’ of which appears in this story in its totality at the beginning of each chapter.
The chapters of the story coincide with the same number as that of the poems particular numbered segments.
The chapters alternate between one that follows the viewpoint of a detective trying to piece thought footage from video surveillance and eyewitness statements, and the other from the first person narrative of the main protagonist.
The main hook in the narrative is the mystery behind a death in real time, a need to find out as the tales comes to a close with the death, of that of how and why? Manslaughter, murder, or an accident on a snowy day?
This was a mystery with literal prose, poetic at times with great telling and voice. This whole book will have you wanting a re-read due to the amount it covers in a small canvas with carefully placed words and great characters.

The last story in this work, ‘The Treaty,’ is a memorable potent piece.
A woman tries to forget and at the same time has to confront the days past, ones of a harrowing ordeal.
As she learns of his resurfacing in a new clothing, new identity, she wants to confront him, challenge his place in the world with what he had done. She was trying to find her peace, a sister in catholic realm, she must leave her sanctuary to have closure.
The heart at conflict with itself with great prose style, the short declarative sentences leave you no words wasted no feeling undermined with something in mind for the soul and the mind.

Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 01 November 2015