TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
|TransAtlantic by Colum McCann|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A historical family saga for those who prefer something more serious than the genre's usual offerings but with as much (if not more) entertainment and punch. One-hundred-and-sixty years of a fictional family, a factual supporting cast and the history of two nations and, indeed, a 2013 Man Booker nomination. What's not to like?|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 320||Date: May 2013|
|Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing|
|External links: Author's website|
In 1845 ex-slave, black American Frederick Douglass visits Ireland for a lecture tour about freedom and emancipation only to discover he's not preaching to the converted after all. In 1919 Alcock and Brown climb into a rickety aircraft to fly the Atlantic and land in Limerick. In 1994 Senator George Mitchell also travels to Ireland watched by a world that's about to see a miracle of negotiation. Meanwhile through it all Lily and her descendants are also there, not only watching history but living it on both sides of the Atlantic.
A factoid for you regarding Irish author Colum McCann: in addition to a heap of international literary awards, he has an Oscar nomination. He also has reputation as a 'poetic realist'. For those of you who gaze on that with the same level of askance that I did, it means his writing works through the darker side of life in order to reach the light at the end of the tunnel, a tendency that's in evidence throughout TransAtlantic as poverty and conflict struggles for tangible hope.
This novel is a literary tapestry. From the front we only see the story but it flows in such a way that you know the behind the scenes graft must be intricate in order to portray such beautiful simplicity. The other thing that we see is is his love of place as it shines through his words as fluently as his celebration of the indomitable spirit of the people in Ireland (his native homeland) and USA (the country that has adopted and conferred additional citizenship upon him).
Not all the historic names in the novel are that familiar from our school days on the UK side of the pond. Yes, we know of Alcock and Brown but I was totally ignorant of Douglass. If you don't know of him, then have a quick search-engine around; this guy deserves to be as well-known posthumously as he obviously was during his illustrious and inspiring lifetime.
I found the George Mitchell segment a little less engaging but that's just me and this slight lapse of attention left no dent in my overall impression which the novel left on me as I mourned and smiled along with the fictional characters while marvelling that Alcock couldn't swim. (I can't swim, but there again I wouldn't fly a flimsy plane over the Atlantic!)
As Lily's descendants mingle and cross paths with events and famous names, we're treated to amazing turns of phrase. When we read that The Great War had concussed the world. we understand and know there's no better description for the contemporary mood. As poverty-stricken Lily flees Ireland in the hope of a better life she's hunched by age, tapered by sorrow, words that carry an extra dimension of visual onomatopoeia.
We may consider reading to be a passive activity but Colum ensures that we don't just watch, we join the journey as the history becomes a baton handed down to us in the same way he uses that letter first passed to the trans-Atlantic pioneer flyers. Some journeys we make only the once, but this one is packed with so much feeling and depth that I know I won't be able to wait too long before making this one again.
If you enjoyed this and would like to read explore some more modern Irish literature we recommend The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan, another of the 2013 Man Booker Prize nominations.
You can read more book reviews or buy TransAtlantic by Colum McCann at Amazon.com.
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