Colum McCann is one of my favorite writers; he always chooses to write about interesting characters and usually inserts real characters into his work along with the fictional ones. Having said that, this is not among my favorite books he has written. Mainly, this is because it is about a fictionalized Rudolf Nureyev who is an elusive and difficult character to portray, because he is so close to our own time.
At the height of his balletic ability, Nureyev was known all over the world and his fame is still legion. I was lucky enough to be living in London when he was partnered with the lovely and incomparable Margot Fonteyn and doubly lucky to have seen them dance throughout Nureyev's tenure with the Royal Ballet. There is nothing that can describe the excitement in the theater when he would burst upon the stage. It was electrifying!
McCann is an exquisite writer, and the book will hold the reader's attention to the end. What McCann does so well is set the scene from the story's beginning in the Tatar towns in Uzbekistan to the beautiful St. Petersburg, home of the Kirov Ballet where Nureyev began his professional career. The descriptions are very real of soldiers returning from WWII when Rudolf was a child, along with the food shortages and the bleak times of Stalin's and then Kruschev's Russia. There is a particularly touching account of a poorly equipped hospital with its dedicated nurses trying to cope with the returning sick from the war front. This was the setting of Rudolf's youth when he was taking secret ballet lessons from an exiled couple who had once been premier dancers in Petersburg. Early on they recognized the talent and drive of the young Nureyev. It was a long time before his father was able to accept that his son would not be destined for a "manly" occupation.
The reader follows Nureyev's growth from an awkward and powerful beginner to his fame by giving voice to several characters that helped form his character. As the chapters begin with different voices, it sometimes takes a paragraph to recognize whose voice we are hearing. I found this interrupted the cadence of my reading. There is a lot about Nureyev's life after he defected in 1961 and the relationships he formed with men and women. If you have read one of the biographies of Nureyev, you know he had a huge ego and often displayed a lack of sensitivity toward others. Others have attempted to analyze his psyche and connect it to his energetic style of dancing.
The book allows us to imagine Nureyev's relationship with his family and his distance from them imposed by the state of Russia where he was a condemned defector. McCann also follows Nureyev's descent as he ages and is dying of AIDS in the early 90s, yet he continues to dance as he cannot stop doing so; it is his life.
There is much to digest in this book. If you have read a biography of Rudolf Nureyev, you may want to read what McCann has made of his fictionalized life. If you love or are interested in the ballet, you will enjoy going back in time to revisit an icon of dance the likes of which one may never see again.