Back in 2009 Colum McCann set the literary world on fire with the National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin, a collection of stories centered around the day a man walked a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center. Using that true event, McCann elevated the ordinary lives of his characters to extraordinary heights.
There’s a lot more of that in TransAtlantic. At its heart this novel is the story of four generations of Irish women making their way through tumultuous times. Ostensibly, these are ordinary women living everyday lives, but McCann manages to imbue them with cultural and historical significance by intertwining their stories with some real-life events: Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown making the first trans-Atlantic flight from Newfoundland to Ireland, Frederick Douglass’ tour of Ireland to spread the cause of democracy and freedom, and George Mitchell’s attempts to end an unfortunate history of violence. All reflect time of great changes (both fast-moving and slow)–times when possibilities seemed limitless, but McCann rather smartly acknowledges the challenges real cultural shifts face. Things move forward, things stay the same, and the possibility of failure looms large.
The first half of the novel centers on the historical figures, with the women lurking on the periphery of great events. It’s fascinating, and McCann’s lyrical prose pulls you through, but I must admit that for me things didn’t really pick up until the ladies took the stage in the second half. Perhaps this is because the three segments in the first half are mere teases–set-ups with no pay-off and (seemingly) no real direction. It is the ladies who give them depth, it is their perspective that makes the novel sing.
Even so, things don’t always coalesce into a big picture. Some details are dropped in the transitions. Some secrets that are alluded to are never revealed. I suppose this is just the way life works: can we ever truly unlock all the secrets of our ancestors? Can we ever truly know what secrets they held in their hearts? Still, for this reader it contributes to a sense that things don’t entirely gel in this novel.
Having said that, I do recommend this book. Fans of Let the Great World Spin will be particularly enchanted. And McCann, who didn’t have much to prove anymore, continues to be a deft writer who truly understands “the miracle of the actual” better than most.
PS In keeping with my mission statement, it is my duty to inform you that I received an advanced copy of this novel as part of Amazon’s Vine program.