TransAtlantic amply demonstrates two of Colum McCann’s greatest strengths, namely his dexterity in occupying the voice of those observing, or in the orbit of, the famous (this is not new ground – his earlier novel Dancer is an enthralling novelisation of the life of Rudolf Nureyev) and his ability to depict the significant moments of long lives within short stories. Just as his previous offering, Let the Great World Spin, was essentially a series of short stories connected by the central event of Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center, Transatlantic’s central conceit is the way in which a series of voyages across the Atlantic undertaken by great men (Alcock and Brown, Frederick Douglass and US Senator George Mitchell) interact the members of four generations of an Irish-American-Canadian family.
It is in the first half of the book, which deals with historical figures, that the novel is most successful. In telling the stories of Alcock and Brown’s first trans-Atlantic flight and George Mitchell’s involvement in the peace settlement in Northern Ireland, McCann manages the difficult feat of injecting tension into events whose denouement we are already familiar with. We know the former will pilot their plane from Newfoundland to Clifden and we know the latter will painstakingly shepherd the Good Friday Agreement into reality; yet McCann captures perfectly the tension of flying a rickety World War I Vickers Vimy bomber over an ocean and cajoling politicians and terrorists into cussed compromise. McCann’s treatment of the Irish famine treads wearily familiar ground, contrasting as it does the genteel comfort of the wealthy classes with the abject poverty of the vast majority of the population; yet by viewing this inequality through the eyes of the young anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass McCann brings an entirely new perspective to the tragedy. Douglass is seduced by the warmth of the Irish people’s support for abolition but repelled by the starvation and penury experienced by those living cheek-by-jowl with the ascendant classes.
The second half of the novel, exploring four women whose lives interact tangentially with the three men, is less successful. In telling the story of an emigrant Dublin servant girl, her daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter, McCann crosses the ocean and back, switching focus from Catholicism to Protestantism, poverty to wealth. By connecting these lives to those of Brown, Douglass and Mitchell, McCann might incorporate universal themes of family, death, belonging and love, but in so doing he sacrifices depth for breadth. These stories (penniless immigrant girl becomes matriarch and business owner, Canadian journalist watches her daughter fall in love, grandmother reflects on the loss of a young man in their family, septuagenarian struggles to hold on to home during the credit crunch) mix lovingly rendered character sketch with potted biography, but are too smooth and complexity-free to attain the significance McCann is obviously straining for.
Such smoothness ensures TransAtlantic is an enjoyable read, even if the reader may struggle to remember the latter half of the book a few weeks later. McCann’s prose displays his seemingly effortless virtuosity (“New York appeared like a cough of blood. The sun was going down behind the warehouses and tall buildings. She saw men on the wharfside in the ruin of themselves. A man barked questions. Name. Age. Birthplace. Speak up, he said. Speak up, goddamnit”). In so doing, he captures one of the trite but essential truths of existence – we are all in transit from an identifiable past to an uncharted future.
TransAtlantic was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2013.