BY SOPHY KOHLER
In TransAtlantic, Irish writer Colum McCann presents us with a set of connected stories that cleverly meld history and fiction. While the stories appear at first to be disjointed – and the book therefore alienating – they subtly begin to overlap and, halfway through, reach a level of coherence that is quite brilliant if, perhaps, a bit contrived.
The book explores the relationship between Ireland and America – at first, two seemingly disparate countries, connected only by the Atlantic Ocean. However, as McCann introduces us to a series of transatlantic encounters across several decades of the 19th and 20th centuries, the two begin to move closer together, their similarities illuminated.
It begins, as the title suggests, with an account of the first non-stop transatlantic flight, made by Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown who flew a modified World War I bomber from Newfoundland in Canada to Ireland’s County Galway in in June 1919. In McCann’s version, their attempts and success are documented by a pair of journalists, mother and daughter Emily and Lottie Ehrlich.
Next, we are introduced to abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who travels to Dublin to meet his Irish publisher, Richard Webb, and later to Cork. It is here that he encounters Lily Duggan, who spontaneously runs away from her life as a servant and boards a ship to America. In America, she becomes Lily Fitzpatrick and, eventually, Lily Ehrlich.
The stories are, to varying extents, all haunted by the tragic story of Lily’s daughter, Emily, even if merely as a counterpart to the narratives of “great men” which dominate the book. But, more broadly, the tales are threaded by four generations of women who, with every achievement, seem to get battered down again. Even with her success as a journalist, Emily is forced to write under a male nom de plume.
The lives described in TransAtlantic are mostly bleak, grounded in an ubiquitous poverty and inequality that is difficult to imagine outside of Dickens. There are few moments of respite from this and, when they come, it is the form of Senator George Mitchell and Tony Blair.
McCann’s sentences are annoyingly fragmented and his text broken up into brief vignette-like passages. Some of his phrases are beautifully unique – a body is a “damp white loaf”; streams “gallop” – while others seem forced in their originality – they hung their swords above “the fireplaces of their minds”. But these are the few weaknesses of TransAtlantic, which follow the widely successful Let the Great World Spin, and was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize.
TransAtlantic is published by Bloomsbury, R244.