This is McCann’s first novel since his bestselling book, Let the Great World Spin. For those of you who enjoyed it, Transatlantic is another chance to revel in the beauty of McCann’s writing and his ability to bring together disparate characters who interconnect in an overriding theme. In this case, it is the Irish-American relationship, and within it, McCann weaves non-fiction and fiction together seamlessly.
The first half of the book concentrates on real-life situations that emphasise the transatlantic relationships between America and Ireland. It begins in 1919 with the retelling of the first Transatlantic flight ever made, by two world war one pilots, Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown. The detail with which he describes the flight is fascinating, with the pilots nearly freezing to death up in the sky and spinning and rolling out of control before eventually landing on Irish soil – ‘A beautiful country. A bit savage on a man all the same‘.
Next McCann takes us back in time to 1845 to when a freed slave, Frederick Douglass, went to Ireland to lecture on the horrors of slavery. Again, the detail was interesting – a black man in a white country, how Douglass battled to understand the accents, how he travelled with bar bells to keep himself fit. McCann throughout the book shies away from wallowing in the awfulness of situations, but rather reflects them through the experiences of the characters. Thus there are no lurid descriptions of slavery, or of IRA bombings.
The next character we encounter is former Senator George Mitchell who in 1998 went to Northern Ireland to mediate the peace process. He is another transatlantic character, this time perhaps more involved in Ireland itself, yet we are never bored by the political situation. The only time he exposes us to a politician is when Mitchell notices during negotiations when they are holed up in a building for days that Tony Blair has had a shower, and envies him desperately.
The second half of the book concentrates on three generations of fictional women, all of whom have been woven into the non-fictional account in the first half. Lily Duggan is a maid in the house where Douglass is hosted, her daughter Emily Erhlich is an intrepid journalist who covers the Brown-Alcock flight, and then Lottie, Emily’s daughter, who meets Senator Mitchell in her lifetime. These women are as artfully created as the non-fictional characters and I liked all of them – strong, unconventional women.
Although I was touched by the lyricism of McCann’s writing and its delicacy, I sometimes tired of his very short sentences, often followed by short phrases. It made for choppy reading. But not often enough for it to affect my enjoyment of this wonderful novel.