TRANSATLANTIC by Colum McCann, Book Review: Epic

TransAtlantic Book Synopsis

Transatlantic by Colum McCann1919. Emily Ehrlich watches as two young airmen, Alcock and Brown, emerge from the carnage of the First World War to pilot the very first non-stop transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to the west of Ireland. Among the letters being carried on the aircraft is one which will not be opened for almost a hundred years.

1998. Senator George Mitchell criss-crosses the ocean in search of an elusive Irish peace. How many more bereaved mothers and grandmothers must he meet before an agreement can be reached?

1845. Frederick Douglass, a black American slave, lands in Ireland to champion ideas of democracy and freedom, only to find a famine unfurling at his feet. On his travels he inspires a young maid to go to New York to embrace a free world, but the land does not always fulfill its promises for her. From the violent battlefields of the Civil War to the ice lakes of northern Missouri, it is her youngest daughter Emily who eventually finds her way back to Ireland.

Can we pass from the new world to the old? How does the past shape the future? In TransAtlantic, National Book Award-winning Colum McCann has achieved an outstanding act of literary bravura. Intricately crafted, poetic and deeply affecting it weaves together personal stories to explore the fine line between what is real and what is imagined, and the tangled skein of connections that make up our lives.

Genre: Literature, Drama, Historical

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My first experience of Colum McCann’s work was my reading of Let The Great World Spin, a title that years later still ranks amongst my favourite literary novels. So despite the ebullient reviews even prior to its official release and more recently its Man Booker Prize long-listing, it was with some trepidation that I embarked on the TransAtlantic journey. Was it going to meet my lofty expectations?

At first I was a little perturbed by a less engaging start than I’d hoped for, but I was pleased to find McCann’s talent for setting a scene and evoking time and place on display,

It was that time of the century when the idea of a gentleman had almost become a myth. The Great War had concussed the world. The unbearable news of sixteen million deaths rolled off the great metal drums of the newspapers. Europe was a crucible of bones.

and, on occasion prose reminiscent of Elliot Perlman‘s.

The wind seemed interested in the curtains: it came through the parted doors and ruffled the material, sniffed about, toured the room.

However, I do think in this outing McCann’s one and two word sentences presumably intended to heighten tension and pacing, were employed a little too often, neutralising their effect.

BUT, once the narrative shifted focus to the women who existed just outside the glare of the spotlight history placed on pioneering men, any misgivings I had quickly disappeared.

What particularly struck me about this novel was the way McCann has delivered such a powerful and moving message without shouting. If anything, the subtlety employed in the storytelling only heightens TransAtlantic‘s resonance and depth. It is this element that I believe makes it worthy of it’s inclusion in the 2013 Man Booker Prize Long-list.

While for me it did not quite reach the dizzying heights of Let The Great World Spin, in TransAtlantic Colum McCann has indeed penned a refreshing and insightful look at events that have in one way or another shaped all our lives.

Despite its flaws, I wholeheartedly recommend this title — in shining a pragmatist’s light on the better half of human endeavour, TransAtlantic reminds us we will never go hungry when our plate is half full rather than half empty.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4.75 / 5 ; The Writing 4.25 / 5  —  Overall 4.5

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About the Author, Colum McCann

Colum McCann, originally from Dublin, Ireland, is the author of six novels and two collections of stories. His last novel, Let the Great World Spin, won the National Book Award and was an international bestseller. His fiction has numerous other international literary awards and been published in thirty-five languages. He lives in New York. Checkout his website.

More enthralling historical fiction:
Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon  /  The Book Thief by Markus Zusak  /  The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott  /  Letters from Berlin by Tania Blanchard  /  The Bitter Trade by Piers Alexander