Review of 13 Ways of Looking

by Maggie Libby Davis

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

–Colum McCann

Colum McCann suggests that his newest short story collection Thirteen Ways of Looking, published in November 2015, has autobiographical components. This leads me to suspect that the voices in the stories will have some commonality that is uniquely McCann. However, the voices in each story were so unique that the only commonality I could find was that each story compelled me to read further – pulled deep into the narrative and wishing for a fifth story in this collection of four.

The book begins with the title story about the last day in the life of a retired judge, told from his perspective and that of the detectives and suspects following the events after judge’s murder. The reader is never lost in the jumping between time and point of view. The juxtaposition of the witty, entertaining style of the judge versus the almost journalistic style of writing while the murder is investigated somehow creates a deeper relationship between the reader and the judge. While McCann grants no easy resolution to end the suspense built from the judicial process, in the end the reader must come to realize that the truth exists as it exists, regardless of how many different ways there are to view it.

The second story “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” is a complicated crush of what is and what could be. The form cannot be described in any meaningful way here; one must simply read it. The story is short, seemingly lacking in complexity and even possibly plot, but I promise it’s worth the read and lacking in nothing.

“Sh’khol” is the third story telling of a mother who has to let go of her adopted son in a way that is completely unexpected. McCann’s ability to pull the reader into the details, the emotions, the darkness and light of love, is strong enough to force this reader to take time between the stories to recover.

While it’s been said that a writer should avoid the mistake of saving the best story for last, I do believe McCann did this by ending his collection with “Treaty.” And it was the right choice. The story tells of a nun on a journey to confront her past. I’ll admit there were moments when I thought, “That’s quite a coincidence.” or “Who paid for that?” but the writing was so beautiful that I no sooner had those thoughts that they were forgotten as I was submerged back into the swiftly moving story.

The last story, and the collection of course, ends with “an agreement of faith with a man whose name she does not even know,” wherein any questions on how we ended up in that place, or questions about humanity, are dissolved in a sigh of relief so badly needed mixed with a little bit of melancholy at reaching the end.

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