TransAtlantic by Colum McCann is an inventive three part novel that starts off telling three stories featuring real-life individuals (separated by 150 years) who all ‘arrived’ in Ireland and became in differing degrees heroes. We begin in 1919 with a story about British aviators Alcock and Brown, who made the first non-stop transatlantic flight in June 1919 from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Clifden, Connemara, County Galway. Importantly, for this novel, there was also a small amount of mail carried on the flight making it the first transatlantic airmail flight. Next we are taken back to 1845-46 and the arrival in Ireland of Frederic Douglass, an African American slave, social reformer, and writer who became a leader of the abolitionist movement in the USA on his return. Finally, at we meet Senator George Mitchell in 1998 as he arrives to conduct the negotiations which will result in the Good Friday Agreement. The first two of these tales are engaging and succeed in evoking the time beautifully. By contrast the Mitchell section feels forced and the writing strained. McCann interviewed Mitchell and his wife to get an insight into what had happened during this time, but this seems to have inhibited his ability to fictionalise Mitchell sufficiently to not feel …
As good as the first two section are, you still reach the end of the first part wondering outside of a connection with Ireland if there is anything to connect these disparate stories and events.
It is then, as we enter the books second part that we come to realise that the book is not about any of these gentleman but is actually about four generations of woman in one family, a family (who without knowing it) we have already met in the pages of each of the first three stories. Lily a maid in a house Douglass stays in, her daughter and granddaughter who witnesses the take off of the flight of Alcock and Brown, her granddaughter who meets Senator Mitchell. This second part of the novel tells their stories. Stories of Emigration, the (north) American dream, the loss of sons, the fight for equality. The stories are also linked by an unopened letter. A letter that crossed the Atlantic but was never read, never delivered. A letter whose contents are unknown, but speculated on. It has a hold over the family who, over the years, and for their own reasons choose not to open it and reveal its contents, for fear of breaking some sort of collective spell.
What results is an interesting and often touching portrait of Lily and her descendants, and a look at the importance of those who came to Ireland as well as those who left it for a new life overseas. McCann cares for these women, he reveals their inner strengths, their independence, their love of family, and ultimately their sadness.
Though the book is certainly let down by the sections on Mitchell and the final part of the book where McCann attempts, through Hannah, to tie up some of the loose strands from the stories, there is still more than enough to enjoy in the writing and in the lives of these women which McCann brings to life.
Recommendation: Short-list (Probably)