Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann


Any wise person knows that there is more than one way of looking at something. Seeing things from another person’s point of view, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, removing your pre-conceived notions during an argument or a debate and assessing things from a more subjective standpoint. On the literal side of things there are many different ways of looking at things; from different perspectives, through different mediums, from different sources. One person’s viewing of a work of art can be very different from another person’s – just ask any lover of modern art and their dismissive counterpart. Then, as anyone who has ever been tagged in an unflattering photo on Facebook will know, there are the cameras on the end of pretty much everybody’s fingers, ready to capture a moment you’ve experienced from your own viewpoint.

In Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking, J. Mendelssohn reflects on his long life, from first his bed on awaking, to getting ready with the help of his home helper to meet his son for lunch, to waiting patiently in the Manhattan restaurant he regularly frequents for his son to wind up a business call. He thinks about his parents, his childhood, his career as a judge, his heritage, his legacy, his wife and children. He thinks about the everyday things that remind him of his youth, his thoughts being interspersed with the banalities of the everyday. He is still thinking,

Thirteen Ways of Looking

thinking, thinking when, once his meal is over and he’s gathering himself together outside the restaurant he is attacked by an unknown assailant.

Detectives begin to assess the evidence by doing the routine checks on any possible suspects, interviewing family and checking the 13 security cameras in place in his apartment, the lobby of his building and the restaurant. As they get to the bottom of the attack by viewing the evidence from as many angles possible, we the reader have the advantage of being taken through the day up until the assault by the victim himself. As a novella the storytelling is very effective, and McCann displays a subtle talent for sympathising and identifying with the protagonist without laying on any kind of sentimentality. It’s a story of understanding and empathy, and is a marked way of teaching the humanity of not taking things at face value. There’s an inspirational quote bandied around the internet by well-meaning people, that goes “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always”. While the bombardment of sentimentality wrapped up in a sunset image and heart emojis is irritating the tenderness is real and the message is noteworthy. McCann’s novella echoes it in a considered, beautifully written way and the three short stories that succeed it only go to show further a writer at the top of his game.

What Time Is It Now, Where You Are is a brilliant and surprisingly page-turning example of a writer’s process. A man is tasked with writing a short story for a prolific paper’s Christmas edition, and what at first seems an easy task becomes one laden down with uncertainty and responsibility as he takes on the task of telling the seemingly simple story of a soldier on night guard duty calling home for Christmas. It’s fascinating to get an insight into the twists and turns of a story’s development, and McCann takes you there in such a carefully considered way that it’s only at the end of it that you realise you’re rooting for characters that are even further than fictional than normal.

Sh’khol is a tale that examines loneliness and dependency through the eyes of a separated mother and her son. They live a solitary life in the wilds of Connemara, by way of their family home in Dublin and his origins in a Russian orphanage. A sufferer of foetal alcohol syndrome, the bright eyed boy is without speech but full of life and energy, and delight at his Christmas present of a wetsuit. His mother is Rebecca, a translator of Hebrew texts, and the word sk’hol is one she dwells on when on St. Stephen’s Day Thomas is nowhere to be found. I urge you not to Google it, but to read the exceptionally crafted story and let it take you to its devastating meaning.

The story that rounds of the book is Treaty. A nun recently arrived in a Long Island convent catches a familiar face from long ago on a newscast. Like the other stories hers is told un-sentimentally, but it bristles with emotion. Again it offers an insight into another’s mind, the sometimes familiar, sometimes foreign process of thought.

A marvellous read, Thirteen Ways of Looking and its companion stories offers some of the best Irish writing out there. Read it, and think.

  • Aoife B. Burke
  • First Published in The Tuam Herald on 25th November 2015


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