Woah, my God, was I excited to read this. Colum McCann’s earlier novel Let the Great World Spin is one of those extra-special, one-in-a-thousand books that never leaves you. It’s depictions of New York’s tatty edges was utterly mesmerising. Literally, once I started reading, I couldn’t look away and I never wanted it to end.
Needles to say, I came to TransAtlantic with rather lofty expectations. To be fair, if what I wanted was the experience of reading Let the Great World Spin again, then I should have just reread it. TransAtlantic is by all accounts a good book—an excellent book—but it was not the book I was hoping for.
It begins well, with the first non-stop transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to Ireland. Tucked inside one of the airmen’s jackets is a letter from a girl that will not be read for almost one hundred years. In those early pages, McCann had me right up there with the airmen, colder and more terrified than I’d ever been in my life, and gripping the pages in anticipation. However, the rest of the book felt a little pallid by comparison.
As in Let the Great World Spin, TransAtlantic is a narrative of separate-but-connected stories; a family saga spanning (I think) five generations and two continents. However, the stories are out of order and the family often play only a supporting role.
It is also a story of Ireland’s political history, as told by two American outsiders: Frederick Douglass, an African American slave who travels to Ireland to spread his anti-slavery message in 1845 and is astounded to find free citizens living in worse conditions than his fellow slaves, and Senator George Mitchell, who weekly makes the transatlantic crossing in 1998 to help bring about peace in Ireland. Both characters have brief but significant encounters with members of the family.
I’m behind in my reviews, and it’s actually been about two months since I read the book so my memory of themes etc. is a tad foggy. What I do remember is that there was a wonderful play between what is fact and what is fiction and how memory changes over time, the space between the political and the personal and how all these things inform our concept of ‘home’.
This is a rich and complex read (far more so than I have given it credit for here), and if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading McCann before, perhaps start here and when you finish, be really blown away by Let the Great World Spin.
Meanwhile in real life…
I was so deep in editing mode I have no memory of life outside of work and my thesis. We were short staffed on the magazine while we awaited the arrival of our new editor. I was due to submit my thesis the week after we went to print and I had a 10,000 word award submission to whip up for our events team, just, you know, when things were slow. I don’t know how any of these things got done. What I do know is that I didn’t see natural light for the better part of two months and that life was reduced to a series of word documents and panic attacks.
Reading over that, it sounds incredibly bleak. It was, but I’l reassure you that things have definitely improved since and I’m not writing this from the dark corner of some asylum.