REVIEW | Transatlantic by Colum McCann

image via Strand website

image via Strand website

title: Transatlantic [support an independent bookseller and buy at Strand]
by: Colum McCann
genre: fiction
published: 2013
source: I received an advanced reader’s copy via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review

To describe Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic as merely historical fiction doesn’t seem quite accurate; it attempts to be a bit more than that. The piece spans multiple eras in history but at its core is TIME:  the link between our collective past and how it continues to shape our present.  And in the 1800s and 1900s, one of the biggest factors that indicated that the times they were a-changin’ was the increasing ease and accessibility of overseas travel.  As technology advances, our world becomes increasingly smaller and our sense of global community greater.  This novel attempts to capture the experience of those huge shifts through the experience of one family, but with only partial success.

Each section of the novel focuses on a different era in history, and reads almost like a short story, starting in the first chapter of Book One where McCann reimagines Jack Alcock & Teddy Brown‘s first flight across the Atlantic after World War I, reported on by one Emily Ehrlich and her daughter, Lottie.  As the novel continues, each chapter takes on a new historical figure/era/event (such as Frederick Douglass‘ trip to Ireland and former Senator George Mitchell‘s work in Ireland during the Clinton era where he helped broker the Good Friday Agreement) but McCann always brings the story back around to the experience of one of the relatives of the Ehrlich women. As I read through Book One, it was hard to see how all the eras and stories related to each other, but the loose ends are tied together and the family connection are made much clearer in Book Two.

What I appreciated about McCann’s piece was the path he chose to take with the narrative:  it would have been super easy for him to write a story populated with solely white male historical figures (history is RIFE with them), to laud their accomplishments and tie that history with a family of white men, especially with the piece set primarily in Ireland and America.  But McCann chose to write about a family of women, and wrote from the perspective of servants and icemakers and reporters, as well as from the perspective of great men such as Frederick Douglass.  It was nice to see a diversity of people and voices incorporated into the narrative. That said, the women were still predominately at the periphery of the story, and seemed, at least to me, almost a plot device to weave together McCann’s reimaginings of these GREAT MEN of history.  These MEN and their EXPERIENCES and CONTRIBUTIONS, great though they absolutely are, really form the core of Book One. McCann spends the bulk of that part of the narrative humanizing these historical figures, making them flesh and blood again, allowing us to peek into their minds and experience the era through their eyes.  Few things happen, but we really gain insight into these specific characters.  To really get a sense of the family whose history ties all the portraits of these great men together, we have to wait until Book Two.  And when we finally get there, the chapters seem far more focused on connecting the dots through events than on developing the women as fully as the GREAT MEN of the first half of the book.  The balance from Book One is almost reversed: SO MANY THINGS happen in Book Two, but we don’t quite get a complete sense of who these women really were to the same extent and depth of access as the men. In fact, the most comparable, fully developed, strongest depiction of a woman from that family line doesn’t come until Book Three, the final 42ish pages of the novel.  Whether intended or not, who these women were, compared to the men, almost seems beside the point.  They have served their narrative function.  Back to the periphery of history they go.

Prose-wise, there were a few really beautiful passages in the book…but there were also many verbal flourishes that seemed superfluous and showy and took me out of the story.  Some of the allusions to flight worked well, some were a bit shtick-y.  All in all, I found the book a bit bumpy.  It didn’t feel quite finished, quite polished, quite balanced.

Rubric rating:  6   It was an easy, quick, fairly enjoyable subway read.  Only upon reflection did what I perceive as an imbalance bother me.  That said, I understand why McCann is a popular writer and why people gravitate to his stories.

2014 goals:

  • Read 75 books (3/75)
  • Read titles from 6 continents (continents read:  Europe, North America)
  • Read titles from 20 countries (countries read:  Italy (Sardinia), America)   McCann was born in Ireland, but lives in New York, and since this books is as American as it is Irish, it feels unfair to treat it as an “Irish” novel…the intention of this goal was to read more authors hailing from and living in other countries, with their countrymen as the intended audience, written in their native language.
  • Read 10 authors that I’ve never read before (3/10)  Grazia Deledda, Siri Hustvedt, Colum McCann

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