Review: Transatlantic by Colum McCann

Transatlantic  is yet another shining example of why Irish author Colum McCann will be forever immortalized on my book charm bracelet (specifically, his book Dancer). He has once again woven together the lives of people who one would not assume belonged in the same sentence. It is his brilliant composition that brings to life grand historical events and people, but places them in a context that is intensely personal. War, sacrifice, and family are experienced by each of the characters in this novel.

In this novel spanning from the mid 1800s to today, McCann described what Frederick Douglass’ visit to Ireland must have been like for the abolitionist. The potato famine, and political and social disputes with Great Britain were well underway, and Douglass compared the African American situation to the Irishmen’s.  He also wrote about Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown, the first men to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Entwined in these historical narratives was the modern-day one of Senator George Mitchell who was appointed by President Clinton to work towards bringing peace to Northern Ireland.

Although these three seemingly unconnected stories were the ones which McCann took (well-researched) liberties with, he used his imagination to fill the spaces in between with fictional female characters. He said in an interview of his inclusion of the woman’s perspective

We have a responsibility to what some might call the ‘little guy.’ Often the little guy is a woman, in fact. Women are often excluded from the history books. As if guns and testosterone rule the world.

The women – beginning with the poor Irish housemaid Lucy, to her descendant Hannah – are who frame the novel. The female experience truly is the one that history forgot, but that gives extensive insight into the social impact of larger events.

I am partial, still, to the recklessness of the imagination. The tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again. We return to the lives of those who have gone before us, a perplexing mobius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves.

I love his novels, and am drawn into the stories. But I must admit that I do not fully comprehend the political background of some of the events and themes of which he writes. I know I missed a lot simply by not knowing more about the Northern Ireland peace process, but I was nonetheless captivated and learned something, as well.


Recommended for:
You will learn something reading this book, be it about a historical event or a new perspective on an issue. It’s less than 300 pages so it is a quick read, but a good one.

I would recommend Ken Follet’s Fall of Giants because it also covers multiple generations and sets the story within a political and broader social perspective.

Further reading:
If you want to know which McCann novel to read next, read this article from The Millions. The author does a great job of making you want to read each of them (or re-read them, in my case). This interview will make you want to get coffee with the guy. NPR interviewed him as well.

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