While deciding whether to read TransAtlantic by Colum McCann, I read a review that said…
What McCann says in a sentence, others can’t say in a paragraph.
Now, having read the novel, I can say that is a fair summation of his style.
The book title nicely conveys the theme of the novel – transatlantic journeys. In this book, there are three transatlantic crossings, and all of them by real actual historical figures.
In 1919, two World War I veterans patch together a modified bomber on a field in Newfoundland, load up with tea and sandwiches and coax the makeshift aircraft across the ocean to Ireland, winning a place in aviation history.
In 1845, Frederick Douglass travels to Dublin by ship and encounters poverty so appalling that it almost distracts him from his single-minded goal of ending slavery.
And in 1998, George Mitchell shuttles back and forth across the Atlantic as he brokers what turns out to be a historic Northern Ireland peace agreement known as the Good Friday Accord.
Interspersed between these three real-life transatlantic journeys, are the journeys of the Duggan women. Lily Duggan is a maid in Dublin who is so inspired by Frederick Douglass that she journeys to America to make a new life for herself. In later years, her descendents find themselves making the journey back to their homeland.
Throughout this narrative is a letter that has been unopened for nearly a century. Will its contents save the fortunes of Hannah, Lily Duggan’s great-granddaughter?
I first got to know of this book when it made the Man Booker longlist, I looked up the blurb on the internet and thought that this didn’t sound like my kind of book. I was apprehensive of another depressing reading experience. There were too many depressing books this year, and I had vowed to read more upbeat books.
I am happy to say that I was wrong. TransAtlantic does have its dry (and sad) parts but overall it’s an entertaining and moving (without being extremely downbeat) read.
The book starts off with a bang with a thrilling transatlantic voyage by real-life heroes Brown and Alcock. I went into this not knowing anything about the outcome of this flight, and not knowing whether they succeeded or failed in their attempt made this a very thrilling ride.
It’s when the plane lands and the scene shifts to the previous century when Frederick Douglass – a famous American slave fighting for the rights of his brethren comes to Ireland that the book starts to lose steam.
I really wanted to like this section. On paper it reads good, but Douglass himself did not come across very likable. He is very concerned about the image he presents to his audience, and most of his thoughts are on the fund-raising aspect of his tour, and how much he dislikes his host.
The places where he comes across the poverty and the famine in Ireland are poignant and I would have liked a little more of that, and a little less of his daily routine of weight-lifting and his rather mundane thoughts. There were also a couple of scenes in this section, which didn’t seem true to the times they were set in, and that further dampened my enthusiasm.
Thankfully, once I got over this hump, the rest of the book is a joyride. I liked (but did not love) the bits about George Mitchell brokering the Irish Peace Accord. I preferred this part to Douglass’s part primarily because he is actually doing something important onstage in the novel. Douglass was mostly viewing and commenting on the goings-on.
At the end of this part the true fiction begins and the book really comes into its own.
The Duggan women are all gritty and tough women and it was great to see how and where their lives intermingled with and were impacted by these famous historical people. These parts are wonderfully written and fast-moving. I raced through these to the final ending.
The ending though? It was disappointing, primarily because my expectations were so high, and the final somewhat unresolved conclusion came out of nowhere, and seemed very rushed. A little less of Frederick Douglass and a little more meat at the end would have made this book a lot stronger.
So why didn’t this book make the Man Booker shortlist?
I honestly can’t answer this question. Some of the more entertaining reads never make it to the shortlist. Another example of a longlist book I enjoyed more than some shortlisted books is A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif.
I thought the writing in TransAtlantic was wonderful. McCann does use short, terse, abrupt sentences (similar in style to Cormac McCarthy), but once I got used to the style, it’s very easy reading, while also being poetic at the same time. He did lose the plot a little in the middle, but the book itself is not very long, and in no place did the book feel like a slog.
Overall, this is a book that I highly recommend!
Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for sending me this book in return for an honest review.
You can also purchase this book from Amazon.