Year of a Hundred books – #94 TransAtlantic

TransAtlanticTransAtlantic – Colum McCann


Another Man Booker Long-listed novel, TransAtlantic, actually reminds me a lot of The Road Between Us, mostly because it utilises the same device; a series of intertwined stories from different historical eras, all telling of different generations of the same family. The scale of Transatlantic is a lot wider, spanning four generations across three centuries, but the point of it is much the same.

When I first finished TransAtlantic, a couple of weeks ago, I liked it but didn’t think it was that particularly special. It was a nice story, and educational parts, but not ground-breaking. Lying in bed last night though, thinking about what I could put in this review, I started to realise how layered the text actually is. Like The Chosen, there are so many different ways in which you can understand the story. For example, at its absolute face value, it’s about the Duggan/Ehrlich family, but it’s also about Ireland, and it’s evolution from essentially an oppressed British colony to a functioning and stable political environment in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement. But at the same time, as the title suggests, it’s as much about Ireland’s relationship with North America, predominantly the United States, but also Canada (well, the Dominion of Newfoundland anyway). It’s also about freedom, and progress, and peace.

There are three main plotlines throughout the story. The first chronologically, begins when Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist pedagogue visits Ireland in the mid-1840s. There he encounters and entirely different form of inequality than he is used to, which I think is one of the strongest parts of the book. When Douglass, who has lived his whole life being treated as sub-human because of his colour, encounters a society that embraces him with little to no thought of his ethnicity, and in fact celebrates it, it comes off as quite touching. However, when Douglass finally understands Ireland and the Irish in the context of Britain, and the inequalities within their own lives, he suffers quite a bit from this knowledge. I’m not sure that McCann communicates this suffering in perhaps the best way, but it is effective.

The next plotline follows the aviators Alcock and Brown in their attempt to become the first men to fly across the Atlantic. This is actually the first story we encounter, and I think it’s also the weakest, because nothing really happens. The flight succeeds, though with complications, the men who have been so optimistic become jaded and broken, but I don’t really see how they fit into the story aside from symbolically. Its inclusion is not a flaw, but as I say, it is the weakest of the stories..

The final thread, both chronologically and literary, is told from the point of view of Senator George Mitchell, the US mediator during the final negotiations of the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Politically, this is the most interesting for me. I was nine in 1997, and while I was aware that the Good Friday Agreement happened, I didn’t know what it meant. This, therefore, is the first real insight into the actual process, rather than simply the effects, that I’ve had, and it’s fascinating. In his closing acknowledgements, McCann thanks Mitchell and his wife for their support and input into writing the book, so I think that while dramatized, the story McCann tells is fairly true to the spirit of what happened, and it’s fascinating; particularly the way that Tony Blair is portrayed. In terms of it’s relation to the overall, Mitchell’s is definitely fundamental to the overarching plot, but it also feels quite detached from the others. I don’t know how it could have been made to feel less so, but the transition from the Ireland that Alcock and Brown land in, before the civil war and partition, to the final steps of peace and skipping over the Troubles and all of the conflicts in between feels a little too vast. McCann does go back to fill in the gaps and join the plots together with a look at the perspective of one of the Ehrlich descendants, at the time it doesn’t gel.

That is in essence, the biggest flaw with the book. Despite the fact that all of the plots are interesting, it does mean that the story is a little convoluted and disparate. This is made worse because although the Duggan/Ehrlich women are predominant throughout all of the plotlines, the initial introductions are told through the perspective of some of history’s great men. They are, in essence, introduced as bit-parts that only become important later. I have issues with this,  for a number of reasons, primarily because it implies that these woman, who are just as remarkable, are only defined by these great men. It is Douglass that prompts Lily Duggan to emigrate to the US. It is Alcock that carries a letter from Lottie Ehrlich, Lily’s grand-daughter, back to Ireland, and later prompts Lottie’s return to her ancestral nation. It is George Mitchell that finally allows Lottie and her daughter-in-law closure for the hurt they suffered during the Troubles.

Really I think TransAtlantic tries to fit too much into too small a space. Based on the plotlines exhibited here, I would happily have read an entire series written by McCann with a book dedicated each to Douglass, Alcock and Brown, and Mitchell, with the Duggan/Ehrlich story either intertwined throughout these books or in it’s own separate and standalone volume.

Despite its flaws, I had hoped that TransAtlantic made it onto the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize, because it does have a good story, and is well written, but I’m not entirely distraught that it didn’t make it, because I don’t think it was strong enough to win.  As an aside, I’ve been dropping my thoughts on the Longlist and Shortlist throughout all of my relevant reviews, but now that the Shortlist has been published, I’m going to do a rundown tomorrow discussing what I think about the merits of the Shortlist and those that haven’t been chosen.

So stay tuned!

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