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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Review: 'TransAtlantic'

Literary fiction
June 2013
Random House
ISBN: 978-1400069590

Waves come in and the tide goes out. The sea ebbs and flows, but what changes does that result in? It is only when taking long looks from a distance does it seem that anything has been altered. But looking at a distance also can mean an impersonal point of view in which individual grief does not matter and mourning is no more than another part of life.

The same could be said about what happens in Colum McCann's Transatlantic, which has been longlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize. Men die, women mourn, women endure, women lose. Another generation comes along, grows old in the blink of an eye and suffers grevious loss.

McCann uses the same type of storytelling that he used in Let the Great World Spin to write about life and death, especially death, on both sides of the Atlantic. In both Northern Ireland and North America, great men stand out and attempt great deeds.

In the years between the two great wars of the 20th century, two former prisoners of war attenpt to fly from Newfoundland to Ireland. After they land, the stage shifts to young Frederick Douglass before the Civil War as he visits Dublin to speak and raise funds for the abolition movement. After he leaves, it's more than 100 years later and George Mitchell is leaving New York, his second wife and infant son to head toward the last stage of what will be known as the Good Friday Accords.

In each of these set pieces, the famous men touch the lives of women who are perhaps more extraordinary than they are, because they endure and they do so without celebrity or honor, without recognition or reward.

As Alcock and Brown prepare for their flight across the Atlantic, in part to win the prize money and in part to use the war-waging airplane when there are no overt battlefields, Brown is given a letter to deliver by young photographer Lottie Erlich. It is one her mother has written to someone in Ireland, a country her own mother left decades ago after hearing Douglass speak. Young Lily was inspired by Douglass and ends up as a nurse helping Union doctors in their bloody work. She started following the army after her young son, turned down twice already, goes off to fight. She ends up marrying one of the doctors but death continues to follow Lily.

Her daughter, a bookworm, becomes a writer, is used by a man, and raises a daughter of her own. They end up in Newfoundland, where the daughter hands off the letter before they go back to Ireland. She marries an Ulsterman and stays to raise a family. The daughter grows old, meets George Mitchell and wishes him success because there has been one death too many in her extended family. Her own daughter grows old and hopes the letter, which was not delivered nor opened, but which finds its way back to her,  will be worth enough money to save her home.

Things that would be played up in most novels, such as how the various women feel about the various deaths, how they find the strength to carry on, what it means to them to be the ones who survive, even the letter and whether it saves the home, are not important in this novel. Time goes on and there is no tarrying.

A few setpieces do not make a novel, especially when many of the setpieces have the flat emotionless style of reportage (the George Mitchell section is particularly flat; as a friend remarked, you can almost see where McCann took notes of what Mitchell said and where he added a wee bit of flair).

Although I don't often specifically reflect on a book as being from a woman's point of view, part of the flatness of the McCann was due to his standing back and not looking at the lives of these women and the deaths of so many loved ones they survived as a mother would look at them. That does not do justice to the men who grieve for lost children and other loved ones, and is yet another reason why the McCann did not work for me.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission


  1. I enjoyed the book, not just the reading experience but because it made me look up the different characters he mentioned, not all of whom I was familiar with. There is a hesitancy to the George Mitchell piece, natural I expect when this character required permission to imagine, although I believe her wrote the piece before meeting the senator or his wife.

    I get what you're saying about the female characters and asked myself why this wasn't an issue for me and I think perhaps because I didn't really have any expectations as I read, knowing McCann to be non-conventional, I really wasn't sure what to expect from the way it started out, depicting historically prominent men, it also helped knowing before I started that women were going to feature, as some are turned off by the way it begins.

    I enjoyed Transatlantic more than When The Great World Spins, I think because of the inclusion of real historical figures and the sense of intrigue, knowing that the connections between the characters would slowly be revealed.

  2. Thank you so much for reading my review; I thought yours was thoughtful and made great connections. I also went into TransAtlantic without expectations except to enjoy the language (which I did).

    My reaction was not one I anticipated, but was strong nonetheless. I felt there was no mourning for the lives lost. The fact that we both reacted strongly to the writing shows that our time was well-spent with it.