Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Colum McCann, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘TransAtlantic’ by Colum McCann

Trans-Atlantic

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 320 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The land masses of Ireland and North America might be separated by the Atlantic Ocean but their histories are strongly linked. Colum McCann explores those connections in his latest novel, TransAtlantic, which was longlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award (to be announced on 28 May).

Multiple narratives

The book comprises three main narrative threads at key times in Ireland’s history.

The first tells the story of the first non-stop transatlantic aeroplane flight in 1919 by British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown, which landed in a peat bog in County Galway; the second focuses on African-American Frederick Douglass, a former slave turned leader of the abolitionist movement, who visits Ireland for a speaking tour just as the Great Famine begins to take a hold; and the third examines the work of Senator George Mitchell, an American politician, who played a pivotal role in the Northern Ireland Peace Process, specifically the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Linking all these real life characters are three generations of fictional women from the same family: Lily Duggan, the Dublin maid who looks after Frederick Douglass; her daughter, Emily Ehrlich, a Newfoundland reporter who covers the Alcock-Brown flight; and Emily’s daughter, Lottie, who emigrates to Northern Ireland, where she lives a rather privileged life.

Combined, the narrative threads span more than 150 years — from 1845 to 2011 — and while there are connections between the storylines and the characters, these are largely superfluous. In many ways, each thread could be read as a standalone story, but McCann chops them up and interleaves them so that the novel, as a whole, occasionally jumps backwards and forwards in time, while the locations — Dublin, New York, Belfast — also shift.

This results in a hugely ambitious novel which shows how — as one character puts it — “the tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again”.

Ambitious structure

McCann has done this kind of multi-layered narrative before. His last novel, Let the Great World Spin, which I reviewed in 2009, focused on a diverse range of characters living in New York at the time Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers in 1974. In many ways it read like a collection of short stories and didn’t feel cohesive enough to be a novel (but what would I know — it ended up winning the National Book Award and the Dublin IMPAC International Literary Award).

Perhaps the same could be argued here, but TransAtlantic, just as ambitious in structure and style, is more polished (by which I mean the links between the narrative threads are less obvious)  and it reads like a novel — and a properly entertaining and absorbing one at that. Indeed, I’d have a hard time picking out my favourite storyline because I so enjoyed each one — and there was never a moment when I thought, I wish he’d hurry up with this thread so I can get to the next one, which is sometimes a risk when an author dabbles in multiple narratives.

It certainly helps that McCann is a virtuoso when it comes to combining real lives with imagined ones. And he’s a master at historical detail, of conjuring just the right atmosphere and mood, so that you feel as if you are right there with the people he’s writing about, whether they lived 20 years ago or 100 years ago. Even his prose — and the dialogue — reflects the time period in which each storyline is set: for instance, more formal for the 19th century narrative, a little bit more relaxed and contemporary for the early 21st century narrative.

This all adds up to an accomplished, intricately crafted novel. It’s also a hugely moving one — I laughed at certain scenes and wanted to cry at others — and the opening section, which details that record-breaking transatlantic flight, is some of the most exciting and nail-biting fiction I’ve ever read.

While the rest of this rather grand, sweeping novel might not be quite as tense, it’s brimful of passion and pain, hope and humour, love and loss. In striving for impossible goals — whether it be transatlantic flight, abolition of slavery or finding peace after 30 years of violence — McCann’s characters, firmly rooted to the past, show us how we should always look to the future.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Colum McCann, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Let The Great World Spin’ by Colum McCann

LetTheGreat

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 349 pages; 2009.

Anyone who has seen the Oscar-winning documentary Man on a Wire or read Philippe Petit’s To Reach The Clouds will know of Petit’s daring high-wire act between between the Twin Towers in New York City on August 7, 1974. It was an act that stunned the world but has taken on extra significance now that the Twin Towers are no longer standing.

Adding to the mythology of Petit’s incredibly daring stunt (he walked the wire for 45 minutes, making eight crossings between the towers, and was arrested shortly after) is Colum McCann‘s equally ambitious novel. I say ambitious because it’s fairly staggering in its scope, telling as it does the individual stories of a diverse group of characters living in New York, using Petit’s walk as a kind of bridging link between them all. Does he pull it off? In my opinion, not quite.

Long-time readers of this blog will know I have a penchant for Irish writers and stories set in New York, so I rather suspected that Let The Great World Spin would be right up my street, seeing as it ticked both boxes. But there was something about this book that didn’t gel with me and I’ve spent the best part of a week trying to figure it out.

I think the problem is not so much the scope and the huge canvas that McCann uses, nor the diversity of his characters — an Irish monk, a prostitute and an Upper Eastside housewife among them, all expertly drawn — but that the book reads very much like a collection of short stories strung together (pun not intended) by Petit’s high-wire act. Some of these stories interconnect, others, such as the very brief chapter about Fernando, a 13-year-old subway graffiti artist, do not. And, as ever with books of this type, there is a danger that the reader will like some characters better than others, so that certain chapters become more exciting, or more dull, than others, leading to an inconsistent read.

But I don’t want to sound too harsh, because there’s no doubt that McCann knows how to write beautifully, painting pictures in just a handful of words, as this example shows:

I watched a long pink boa scarf get caught up in the wheels of a patrol car. It wrapped the wheelbase as if in affection, and bits of tufted pink spun in the air.

Similarly, his ability to get into the skin of so many different characters — a rich house wife who’s grieving over her son killed in Vietnam, a Jewish judge called to deal with Petit’s legal case, a black hooker fighting to see her two grandchildren, a reformed drug user guilty of a hit-and-run fatality — without chiming a wrong note is impressive. And his “bridging” segments about Petit are also a delight to read, particularly the section describing the high-wire itself:

The shouting, the sirens, the dull sounds of the city. He let them become a white hum. He went for his last silence and he found it just stood there, in the precise middle of the wire, one hundred feet from each tower, eyes closed, body still, wire gone. He took the air of the city into his lungs.

Interestingly, when I saw McCann at the Cheltenham Literature Festival last week, he confessed that he wanted the book to contain two very strong fictional characters, mirroring the Twin Towers, but that he accidentally killed one off before he really got started — and he just couldn’t bring him back. Whoops, I hope that wasn’t a plot spoiler.