September 26, 2013 by markstani
If one thing becomes clear as you wade through Colum McCann’s sweeping, many-centuries, Booker-longlisted novel Transatlantic (pub. Bloomsbury) it’s that the author can’t half write. His sharp, punchy sentences are equally adept at invoking the crippling famine that strangled rural Ireland in the mid 19th century as they are summoning the grief of those whose families have been torn apart by the Troubles more than one hundred years later. McCann’s Ireland is ‘wild country. Broken fences. Ruined Castles. Stretches of bogland. Wooded headlands. Turfsmoke rose from cabins, thin and mean.‘
McCann weaves a number of initially unconnected narratives, starting with the first trans-Atlantic flight made by John Alcock and Teddy Brown in 1919, hurtling back to the ex-slave and social reformer Frederick Douglass on his visit to Ireland in his quest for freedom, then forward again to Senator George Mitchell and the tortuous final discussions which will eventually result in the Good Friday Agreement. McCann treads a fine line between fact and fiction and he does so successfully, although it is perhaps inevitable that the more recent events sometimes struggle for momentum.
Beautifully written and fascinating as it generally is, there is an awful lot of set-up about this book, the narrative strands seemingly tied together by the flimsiest of threads, and it is only around midway that the story’s whole becomes clear: that of four generations of women in a family, from the Irish housemaid who was inspired by Douglass’s visit to set out for the United States, to her great-granddaughter, now in old age herself, back in Ireland and contemplating an unopened letter passed down through the family, which may or may not unravel some historical myths.
There are moments of true brilliance in this novel: here, for example, is a first sight of 19th century New York: ‘It’s a primitive city, aware of its own shortcomings, its shirt stained, its teeth plaqued, its zip open‘ – and later – ‘New York appeared like a cough of blood‘. But I couldn’t help but finish with the feeling that Transatlantic is a novel to be admired rather than adored.
As one of its characters opines before the end: ‘What was a life anyway. An accumulation of small shelves of incident‘. It is this premise, perhaps, that ultimately renders Transatlantic something just that little less than whole.