‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ by Colum McCann

‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ by Colum McCann  (2015) – 242 pages

 Colum McCann’s writing style in the novella ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ is close to poetry, but most poetry isn’t this much fun.  This novella is probably the finest piece of writing I have read this year.  The other stories in this collection are good solid moving stories, but it is ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ that hits it out of the park for a grand slam home run.

So many of the lines in this novella are not complete sentences but are nonetheless evocative.  The prose here is lyrical and hypnotic, like nothing I have ever seen before. We are inside a man’s mind, and his thoughts are not usually in full sentences.

“Car horns blaring everywhere.  A terrible sound, really.  Isn’t the snow supposed to deaden the sound?  How is it that my hearing gets worse but the awful sounds get louder day after day? A cacophony.  That’s the word.  The pianist playing the contrabass.  The saxman on the violin.  The flautist on the horn so to speak.”  

In the above excerpt there are only three complete sentences and six sentence fragments, yet the language totally evokes the effect of all the car horns to this old man’s mind.

The chapters in the novella alternate between the reflections of a retired judge and the notes of a police procedural.  Thus the judge’s impressions may wax poetic, but the police statements keep us tied down to earth.  The actual story here winds up to be an intriguing murder mystery.  It says a lot about the ubiquitous cameras which are in our lives today.

The other three stories in this collection do not have this exceptional lyrical aspect, but they are well-written stories nonetheless.   In one story, “Sh’khol” a mother adopts a boy with fetal alcohol syndrome and gives him for his birthday a wetsuit to use swimming in the ocean off the coast of Ireland near their home.  In another story, ‘Treaty’, a nun confronts the man who raped her many years ago.

At the end of the collection there is a note from the author stating that the novella and these stories were “completed in 2014 on either side of an incident that occurred in New Haven, Connecticut, on June 27 where I was punched from behind and knocked unconscious, then hospitalized, after trying to help a woman who had also been assaulted on the street.”  McCann then gives us the following line:

“In the end, though, every word we write is autobiographical, perhaps most especially when we try to avoid the autobiographical.”

The novella ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ is a particular delight.  It will cast a spell on you like nothing you have read before.


Grade:   A 

13 responses to this post.

  1. Now that is a very positive review. I have never read McCann but everything I read about this book makes me think that this is the one to try. Thanks.


  2. Colum McCann’s novel Let the Great World Spin divided opinion among the members of my old book group when we read it five years ago. Personally speaking, I enjoyed his writing, but there was something missing from the story for me. This new collection does sound excellent though, especially the novella – that quote is rather striking.


    • Hi Jacqui,
      You read one if the McCann novels I missed. I must say it is hard to keep up with all these Irish novelists. I always say, “Just what the world needs, another Irish novelist.” There are so many of them already. Kevin Barry, Sebastian Barry, David Mitchell, Ann Enright, Colm Toibin, Edna O’Brien, Colum McCann, and on and on. Every one of them has to find something different so they don’t write another stereotypical Irish novel. 🙂


  3. I’m looking forward to reading this at some point. I read The Great World Spins and, as Jacqui points out, I felt there was something missing and wasn’t wholly convinced by it. But then I read TransAtlantic and it was definitely one of my favourite reads of 2014.


    • Hi kimbofo,
      I missed both ‘The Great World Spins’ and ‘TransAtlantic’, because I had already read my quota of Irish authors. ‘Beatlebone’ by Kevin Barry is coming up soon for me as well as the new Edna O’Brien.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I read the new Edna Obrien while I was on holiday in Australia last month. It’s a weird one. It’s very readable but it’s disjointed. I hope to post a review soonish. I have the new Barry too, though I didn’t get on with his last one and abandoned it about 60 pages in…


  4. I haven’t read him in a long time. I like the sound if this, thanks for pointing it to me through your review


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