TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann


Purchased at

Purchased at

I think it is a fair assumption to say that you could fill quite a large bookshelf with nothing but novels based on the Irish diaspora to North America. It is a genre that shows no signs of abating: Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side (2011) and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn (2009) are but two recent examples. Both earned Booker longlist recognition.

So it is no surprise to see TransAtlantic by Colum McCann on the 2013 Booker longlist. He himself is part of the contemporary diaspora, born and raised in Ireland, now living in New York City. This version, however, comes with a distinct twist. In Book One of the three part novel, McCann turns the premise around, developing three story threads based on “returns” to Ireland, all featuring non-Irish central characters. While the three threads span 150 years, the author does not present them chronologically and I will respect that here:

  • The first (“Cloudshadow”), set in 1919, is the story of Alcock and Brown flying from Newfoundland to Ireland in a modified Great War bomber, a Vickers Vimy, with a bag of letters, the first trans-Atlantic “airmail”. Much of this section is set in St. John’s as the frustrated pair wait for appropriate weather to take-off — there is a prize for the first crossing and they have competitors. The latter part does provide an account of their struggles with storms in the air…and their near-crash landing in an Irish peat bog.
  • The second (“Freeman”) turns the clock back to 1845-46 and tells the story of the escaped American slave, Frederick Douglass, and his historic visit to Ireland. He is on a mission to promote the abolitionist cause, raise funds for it and, perhaps most important, promote his own book (to acquire enough money to buy his freedom). We meet him first in Dublin, uncomfortably resident in the home of his Irish publisher; he eventually moves on to Cork in Northern Ireland. Throught his stay, he grapples with the comparisons between his own slavery of being “owned”, the slavery imposed by Irish class behavior and the slavery resulting from the potato blight.
  • The third (“Para Bellum”) moves to 1998 and centres on Senator George Mitchell, born to parents of Irish lineage but raised by a Lebanese family after being orphaned in childhood. We meet him as he prepares to depart New York for Belfast for the crucial weekend of negotiations that will eventually produce the Good Friday Agreement that finally brings relative peace to Northern Ireland — most of the section concerns his personal activities during those high-tension days.
  • booker logoAll three of those threads feature real-life individuals who emerge as heroes in real-life events — McCann wants to make it clear that Ireland does not just send people to North America but that at least parts of Ireland’s history are reflected in the outcome of “return voyages”.

    In Book Two, however, the author returns to the traditional flow, as he begins to weave his three strands together. While those opening parts outlined “global” stories based on individuals known to this day, the central characters in this section are ordinary, very Irish, individuals, all of whom were introduced as minor accessories in the first third of the book.

    The most important is Lily, whom Douglass first met as an indentured maid in the house of his Dublin publisher. She later showed up at the Cork house where he was staying: inspired by his speeches, she has “escaped” servitude and is on her way to America. We pick up her story a couple of decades later in “Icehouse”; she is married to an American who harvests ice in northern Missouri in the winter and prospers by hauling it to St. Louis in the warmer months.

    In the Alcock/Brown thread, McCann also introduced a Newfoundland reporter, Emily Ehrlich, and her photographer daughter, Lottie, who are covering the departure (“Alcock and Brown have been warned to be on their guard, since the mother and daughter have, by all accounts, a tendency towards nostalgia and firey Irish tempers.”) Despite that warning, Brown has developed a respect for Emily. In fact, on the morning of the departure, she hands him a packet of sandwiches and a sealed envelope to carry on the “first airmail” journey, a bit of “illegal” commerce in the enterprise. In this later section, we follow Emily and Lottie on their first trip to Europe, a six-month magazine assignment that starts with a first-class ocean liner trip and ends with a visit to the aging, alcoholic Brown in Wales.

    Daughter Lottie is also the central character in the third thread of Book Two — now a grandmother she is teaching her grandson tennis at the same Belfast club where Sen. Mitchell relaxes in stolen moments from the peace negotiation process.

    Having updated and braided his threads together in Book Two, McCann moves to 2011 in Book Three (“The Garden of Remembrance”) to bring all the stories into the present day. I won’t try to describe this section here beyond saying I found it the weakest part of the novel — while sympathetic, interesting characters were the strength of the first two books, in this one tidying up story lines seems to take precedence. Alas, that seems to be an issue that most authors of “widescreen” novels have to face.

    I like to provide excerpts from books I review so visitors here get at least a sense of the author’s style. Unfortunately, McCann’s prose approach makes that hard to do — I noticed the same thing in the only other McCann that I have read, the multi-prize-winning Let The Great World Spin. Still, I’ll give it a go. Here’s an example of his detached, almost formal, approach to story narration, in this case Emily and Lottie watching Alcock and Brown’s Vimy as it leaves St. John’s:

    She stands with her daughter at the third-floor window, hands on the wooden frame. They are sure at first that it is an illusion, a bird in the foreground. But then she hears the faint report of the engines, and they both know they have missed the moment — no photograph either — yet there is also a strange exaltation about seeing it from a distance, the plane disappearing into the east, silver, not gray, framed by the lens of a hotel window. This is a human victory over war, the triumph of endurance over memory.

    Out there, the blue sky lies cloudless and uninterrupted. Emily likes the sound of the ink rising into her fountain pen, the noise of its body being screwed shut. Two men are flying nonstop across the Atlantic to arrive with a sack of mail, a small white linen bag with 197 letters, specially stamped, and if they make it, it will be the first aerial mail to cross from the New World to the Old. A brand-new thought: Transatlantic airmail. She tests the phrase, scratching it out on the paper, over and over, transatlantic, trans atlas, trans antic. The distance finally broken.

    Description, by contrast, is almost stream of consciousness. This excerpt follows immediately from the passage quoted above:

    Floating icebergs below. The roughly furrowed sea. They know there will be no turning back. It is all mathematics now. To convert the fuel into time and distance. To set the throttle for the optimum burn. To know the angles and the edges, and the spaces in between.

    Brown wipes the moisture from his goggles, reaches into the wooden compartment behind his head, grabs the sandwiches, unwraps the waxed paper. He passes one to Alcock who keeps one gloved hand on the yoke. It is one of the many things that brings a smile to Alcock’s lips: how extraordinary it is to be munching on a ham-and-butter sandwich put together by a young woman in a St. John’s hotel more than a thousand feet below. The sandwich is made more delicious by how far they have already come. Wheat bread, fresh ham, a light mustard mixed in with the butter.

    Despite the awards, Let The Great World Spin provoked a mixed response from readers and I am sure Transatlantic will as well. On the one hand, McCann likes the “grand” — a grand city in the former case, grand global events in this one. But his real passion in both books is ordinary people and the way they form part of that “grand” scheme — if that scheme represents the impressive oak tree towering above the ground (more than 150 years old in this novel), those characters are part of the essential ball of roots that sustains and grows it.

    Some readers (that includes me) take to that approach while others find it frustrating. For me, McCann’s characters — both the grand and not-so-grand ones — are multi-dimensional, their stories both comprehensive and interesting. And I fully support the concept that the tallest, broadest tree needs roots that we don’t ordinarily see but should appreciate. There may be a bookcase full of previous Irish/North American novels but space deserves to be made for this one as well.


    14 Responses to “TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann”

    1. Kerry Says:

      I find it difficult to describe exactly what it was about McCann’s last that prevented us getting along, but your description of this one suggests to me that it likely wouldn’t be a favorite either. I think it has partly to do with how he connects ordinary people to the grand events. For some reason, novels best described that way leave me a little cold. (For some reason, E. L. Doctorow’s The March comes to mind, as excellent as that book is.) My reaction is most assuredly about me, not McCann. I think there is something about his style that doesn’t excite me either, the formality creeps even into the section that bends toward stream-of-consciousness.

      I had planned to take a pass on this and you’ve confirmed that makes sense for me.


      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I can understand why you react negatively to McCann’s approach. Partly because of his prose style, but even more the larger structure, I can see where some readers find an artificial “phoniness” to the “little” people in his novels. For my part, I appreciated the contrast and they did come fully to life.


    2. kimbofo Says:

      I was waiting for your take on this one and I’m pleased to hear you largely enjoyed it even if you saw some weaknesses in it. It sounds like quite an ambitious novel in terms of structure but also in subject matter — and I like that in a book. Even if the author doesn’t quite pull it off, I like writers who aim high and stretch themselves. Anyway, your review has confirmed I will probably like this one and I’ll extract it from the shelf soonish… so many other books to read first!


      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I certainly know books, set in Ireland or North America, from each of the three eras that McCann uses — part of what I liked about this one is the way that he built a thread between those various times. Like all multi-generational novels, it does demand some licence from the reader, but I was quite happy to grant that. We know that there were people like Lily, Emily and Lottie around all these events — I was quite willing to enrol in McCann’s picture of what they might have been like.


    3. Max Cairnduff Says:

      The combination of the grand event and the personal is interesting, but doesn’t grab me personally. There are so many Irish diaspora novels, though it is nice to see one the other way around – the return to Ireland.

      I liked the second quote better than the first, and I think you were right to include both as they’re stylistically quite different. Interesting again.

      Not one I think for me, for which as ever I thank you Kevin.


      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Knowing what I do of your tastes, I don’t think this would have much appeal to you. Like most “widescreen” novels there is a lot of “story” crammed in here, which means there is not a lot of introspection or conflict of values/ideas, both of which seem more to your interests.


        • Max Cairnduff Says:

          Yes, I’m not a widescreen fan and I’m fairly indifferent to story (I like it in genre fiction, but I’m agnostic on it on the literary side – I don’t object but it’s not a bonus). Thanks.


    4. Lawrence Garcia Says:

      I’m excited to read this one especially afyer your write-up. I’m trying to read all the books longlisted for the Booker Prize, but it’s all contingent on the almighty holds line at the library. So far all I’ve read is ‘The Testament of Mary’.


      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Good luck with your project — I am sure depending on library copies adds to the challenge. While I have read the entire longlist in past years, I doubt I’ll be doing that this year since there are a couple that I can tell don’t suit my tastes. If one of them happens to be the jury’s favorite, I’ll just have to live with it.


        • Lawrence Garcia Says:

          Yeah some of them definitely don’t suit my tastes but I’m trying to… broaden my selections. Also I don’t usually read the longlist so I want to do it at least once.


    5. David Flynn Says:

      Excellent review with one minor error present: Cork is in the South of Ireland not the North.


    6. Caroline Ryan Says:

      I would love to have you give me further thoughts on Hannah, the closing character in the book. It seemed to me each generation of Lilly’s family was of less consequence than the one before it, culminating in the most unworthy, Hannah . Perhaps strong characters are only forged by hard times.

      I am leading a book club discussion on Transatlantic and I am trying to formulate questions.


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