04 February 2014


by Colum McCann

"I suppose one finally learns, after much searching, that we really only belong to ourselves."
I can't think of a better way to spend a sick day than covered in quilts, reading a great book.  I've been meaning to read McCann for a while now -- years, probably.  A friend from law school and I recently reconnected via Facebook, and then Goodreads, and when she told me that TransAtlantic was her favorite book from last year, I decided that it was time.  I'd planned to read TransAtlantic first, but as I was flipping through the first few pages of Dancer, I was hooked.

Now, here's the part where I admit that before yesterday at approximately 7:45 pm, I'd never heard of Rudolf Nureyev.  The first section of the book is a heavy and exhausting description of a Russian wartime winter.  It's mesmerizing, and disgusting and so beautifully written I nearly cried.  If it weren't for the title of the book and a few snippets of some Amazon reviews that I glanced through, I wouldn't have even known until quite a ways in that the plot centered on ballet, and if I hadn't recognized Margot Fonteyn's name about halfway through the book and then Googled, I probably wouldn't have realized at all that the central character is a real person, and that this novel (such as it is) is a fictionalized account of his life (it's not entirely fictional; I'd liken it more to a Capote-esque non-fiction novel).

It's difficult for me to articulate what McCann's strength is because I think he's good at everything.  He tells this story from multiple perspectives, sometimes first person and other times third person, and we hear from a variety of people -- sometimes an omniscient unknown narrator, but primarily the characters themselves:  Nureyev's teachers, his housekeeper, his lovers, even the man who makes his ballet shoes.  The chronology is clear, but it sometimes takes a few minutes to realize whose voice we're hearing, whose agenda or biases we're being expected to adopt.

We hear only once from Nureyev himself, and it's only in a group of carelessly written passages, mostly lists of tasks, practice schedules, reminders.  Sparse as it is, this section gives wonderful insight into how obsessive and driven he was about his craft.  Strangely, it's not from the artist himself but from those who surround him that we learn about his humanity, his kindness, his worries, and his greatest successes other than ballet.

I really loved this book, and yes, I then spent hours on YouTube watching Nureyev dance.  I know less than nothing about ballet, but when it comes to storytelling, McCann is definitely a master.

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