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HALL OF FAMEon 26 October 2002
Colum McCann has written a beautiful book with his work, "This Side of Brightness". Beautiful in this case may seem odd, but I would use the word here as I would use it to describe a work by John Steinbeck. Human nature and behavior often has trouble rising above decent much less beautiful, but a talented writer can bring painful lives and experiences to paper in prose that is wonderful to read. The pain that is documented is not minimized, rather written in a way that allows the truth to remain unvarnished, and the prose to be rendered by an artist like Mr. McCann.
I have read about the men who dug the excavations for the caissons of the Brooklyn Bridge, but never for the hundreds of miles of tunnels throughout the boroughs of New York. Tunneling is an extremely dangerous occupation, and if possible is even more hazardous when tunneling under water. The men must work in highly pressurized rooms in order to keep the river from collapsing in upon them, and yet the pressure cannot be so great that the air violates the walls of the chamber blowing outward as opposed to being crushed. The book documents a true story of men that were literally pushed through the walls of the tunnel they were digging until ejected in to the river and then being blown out of the water. To live through such an experience has to rank with the most remarkable stories of survival.
The book shares two lives that are revealed in parallel as far as narrative, but are intertwined in practice. The lives of both men are occupied at various times by living/working underground, but ultimately one life is spent and finally ends beneath the river, while for the other it is a refuge that ultimately allows him to emerge once again to life above ground leaving his demons buried.
The author also explores prejudice in a variety of forms, and from the book's very beginning shows prejudice and racism for the absolute stupidity it is. Men of various color and ethnic backgrounds enter a vicious working environment where they not only work together but are willing to risk their lives for each other. Black, white, Irish, Italian, Polish, none of these characteristics have any meaning when below ground, once returned to the surface every vile behavior associated with race, and religion once again is in full blossom. Church leaders reinforce the worst and most ignorant tenets of institutional stupidity; de facto Jim Crow rules dehumanize its victims.
Colum McCann does not shy away from any topic of traditional controversy. He takes the reader through generations of a family begun by a white wife and her black husband, their children who are born in to a world that hates them even more than their all black father, if that is possible.
There is one issue I am unclear on and it stems from a quote on the jacket of the book. Frank McCourt writes of McCann's, "having been there", when he writes about homeless living under the city. My question is whether the author did live there for a time while writing this book, or whether he actually was homeless for a period of time. In either event it took courage to live there as an observer, and if the latter, both courage and a willingness to share a desperately difficult and personal part of his life.
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VINE VOICEon 13 November 2010
Two stories from either end of a century, at first seemingly unconnected, but inexorably working towards each other.

1916 and George Walker is digging the tunnels beneath the Hudson that will form the New York Underground.

1991 Treefrog is homeless and seeking refuge in the same tunnels from the bitter cold New York winter.

This is a story of big events that change lives, about hardship, the human spirit that pulls people through and about how families can shape the bigger history about them. Shaped around a true event where the pressure in the tunnel cracked the roof and sent the tunnelers up into the air above the Hudson on a geyser, This Side of Brightness is a considerable vision.

I don't want to give away too much about how the 2 stories are linked because it is a pleasure to see the skill with which McCann pulls them together.

As George Walker's body forces him out of the tunnels we follow him through the century as his family are affected by racism, war, drug addiction.

At the same time we learn how Treefog used to have a family of his own, used to work building the skyscrapers which make up NY's familiar skyline. How he too suffered his share of problems, mental health issues, the break up of his family and years of surviving in the brutal world underneath the city streets.

One man digging and one man building up, both helping to shape the city that forms their world. The dual narrative pulls us skillfully along, bringing the two men together.

McCann does this big picture, part history/part fiction thing with real finesse, he is a writer of real quality. The recent Let The Great World Spin shows that this wonderful novel isn't a one off.

And while it is a novel of great scope and depth, it is also one of perfect little details, of scenes and images that stay with the reader. A piano found in an abandoned tunnel, a digger holding a bullet in his belly button, the tunnelers suspended above the river on the geyser.

McCann is an impressive writer and This Side of Brightness is a rare thing, an expansive literary novel that reads as easily as a thriller.
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on 16 October 2004
In this epic novel, Mr McCann combines both historical facts and fiction. On the historical side, the story opens with the digging of a railway tunnel under the East River in New York in 1916. The reader follows the main character, a coloured man called Nathan Walker, a sandhog who struggles daily with his shovel against the earth. The working conditions are atrocious: the heat, the noise, the dirt, the physical strain - the digging was done by manpower in these days. Later Nathan marries Eleanor O'Lear, a white woman of Irish descent. Such a marriage was considered by most New Yorkers as a disgrace at that time. They bring up two children, both a social and a financial challenge.
Parallel to Nathan Walker's story, the reader follows another character, a homeless man nicknamed Treefrog who made his home in one of the many disused tunnels in New York in the 1990s. At first there appears to be no connection between Nathan and Treefrog but soon enough the reader discovers how and why they are linked in the novel.
With a marvellous narrative for its economy, Mr McCann constructs a beautiful epic story of laughter and tragedy, of sadness and small victories. It is an authentic account about homelessness, about living below the rich and about the stronghold of the past.
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on 5 November 2015
Being Colum McCann, it's excellently written. But oh so dark and depressing. The squalor, sadness and pathos is thoroughly unrelenting. And no redemption for anybody - it's a continual slide down into the depths, death being the only release.
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on 30 October 1999
You come to love and respect the characters so much, that your emotions are stretched. McCann gets you below the belt sometimes when you are least expecting it, on the turn of a full stop, wham - you are knocked for six ! Unusual backgrounds, for the two parallel characters whose lives touched me deeply. I urge you to read this book. This novel had a profound effect on me. I know you will not regret it. A great book, beautifully written.
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on 9 January 2014
As someone who has never been to New York before but loves to read about it I was attracted to this book. First and foremost the amount of research that must have went into it had to have been an enormous task. The detail in which I was brought into the lives of sandhogs in the 1910's and homeless people in the late 80's and what went on between was a pleasure to read.

My only criticism is that it could have been about 50 pages shorter and got a little bit laboured towards the end.
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on 17 March 2014
Not light holiday reading, that's for sure. I love Colum McCann's writing, but the darkness was unrelenting until the last 30 pages
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on 16 September 2014
I absolutely loved this book. Full of tragedy and hope, and with a wonderful twist as the characters came together over the timeline. I was surprised as my initial mind's eye picture of the current day character was so wrong. Having visited the Lower Eastside Tenement Museum and Harlem, I had some sense of the environment, but superficial if I am honest. Gripping.
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on 31 October 2015
mcann is a composite writer who creates word pictures of stunning clarity and astounding form. I enjoy all his books with exciting expectation on purchase on my kindle!
Fin o Keeffe
Tramore
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on 31 August 2013
Specially if you've recently walked in Brooklyn, the street names will enable you to visualise even better the descriptions, it's a superb book, but be warned, breaks your heart too
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