Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

In 2014, Colum McCann was assaulted in a one-punch attack in Connecticut. In Thirteen Ways of Looking, the Irish novelist processes this traumatic event through multiple lenses. As McCann writes in an afterword, the novella and three shorter stories, while not autobiographical, are all indelibly informed by the attack in some way.

The book’s titular novella opens on elderly judge J. Mendelssohn, proud and sharp-witted even as his body fails him, bickering with his carer Sally, aching for his late wife, preparing to meet his feckless, cynical son for lunch – so it is a shock when the narrative suddenly jumps forward to find detectives trawling through security vision in the aftermath of his violent murder. As McCann jumps between Mendelssohn and the detectives, the inevitability of those final moments add an extra layer of pathos to his raging against the dying of the light.

‘What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?’ is an intriguing metafiction, built around a writer on a deadline constructing an initially trite tale of a soldier calling home from Afghanistan for New Year’s Eve. As the story is teased out, however, the characters become more authentic and nuanced, quickly outgrowing their conceit. In ‘Treaty’, an elderly nun recognises the guerrilla who raped her when he appears on TV as a diplomat thirty years later. What begins as an exploration of memory, coping and ageing is transformed by a disturbing sting in its tail.

‘Sh’khol’ is the collection’s strongest and most harrowing piece, about a mother whose son, a deaf adoptee still haunted by a traumatic childhood in Russia, goes missing. The piece is racked with grief, anxiety and longing, and McCann’s fascination with the body – its limitations, fallibility and permeability – while present throughout the collection, is foregrounded here.

Each of the stories in Thirteen Ways converges around moments of trauma, varying in their perspective – some in the moments before, some years after, some in the frantic present. While not a Grand Novel in the same sense as McCann’s other works, Thirteen Ways is an enlightening and thought-provoking collection.


Alan Vaarwerk is the editorial assistant for Readings Monthly.