Book Review: Transatlantic by Colum McCann

One of the current literary greats of Ireland is Colum McCann. Having written seven novels and three collections of short stories, his work is thoughtful, expansive, and poetic. Currently living in New York, McCann has made a name for himself by writing for international publications such as the New York Times, The New Yorker, Esquire, and the Paris Review, along with his novels. McCann was long-listed for the Booker Prize for his novel Apeirogon in 2020 and walks in the footsteps of Ireland’s foremost writers: Wilde, Beckett, Yeats, and Joyce.

I first heard of his novel Transatlantic when it came up as a recommendation in a Conde Nast article called “Ambassadors Recommend the One Book to Read Before Visiting Their Country.” Ireland’s Ambassador recommended Transatlantic as an introduction to his homeland, and I can see why. Not only is Transatlantic written by an Irishman, but it also showcases Ireland’s rich and turbulent history, and its traditions and values. My days in Ireland have been limited, but I feel I better understand its spirit for having read this book.

McCann has chosen a very unique structure for this novel. Partially biographical and partly fictional, the work hangs on a handful of real figures of Irish or American descent whose lives made Ireland significant, or whose lives were made significant by Ireland. Interwoven between the higher-visibility characters are fictional ones who fill in the details from the perspective of the common people.

The story begins with John Alcock and Arthur Brown, the first aviators to successfully cross the Atlantic in 1919, landing in Galway. It was a miracle that they land safely–or nearly so–their Vickers Vimy bomber doesn’t fare as well as they do. Their achievement is still recognized internationally and their legacy weaves like a thread through the entire book.

Next in the novel we follow the American abolitionist Frederik Douglass during his travels through Ireland, and the speeches he gave to rally Irish interest in the anti-slavery cause. His words there fall on open ears and minds. He meets the ‘Great Liberator’ of Ireland, Daniel O’Connell, with a cause and a talent for speech like his own. Douglass feels compassion for the poverty-stricken he encounters, and considers also fighting for their cause. He realizes this would spread him too thin, and rationalizes to himself, “What was beyond toleration was the ownership of man and woman. The Irish were poor, but not enslaved.”

Later McCann takes us to the most intense days of the Troubles, when bombings and killings for political reasons were a daily event. In the 1990s enters the American Senator George Mitchell, sent by Bill Clinton to broker the Good Friday Peace Accords and establish a new era in Ireland, a peaceful one. “The true verdict, he says, will belong to history. The ordinary people own it now. We could not have found peace unless the desire for it was already there.”

Each of these people crossed the Atlantic to play their part in the history of Ireland and are captured and sketched in intimate detail by McCann’s skillful pen. It’s the diary of a country, with poetic reverence for the lives it shaped.

Portaferry and Stangford Lough, Ireland

McCann reminds us that others crossed the Atlantic going the opposite direction. He uses fictional characters to represent the thousands who fled poverty in Ireland in search of a new home in America, one they hoped would offer more security and comfort. Often poverty, war, and heartache were all they found on the other side. Still, they were a resilient bunch, like Lily Dugan, the gritty young woman whose daughters and granddaughters Emily, Charlotte, and Hannah, born successively on American or Canadian soil, made the best of their circumstances, returning at intervals to revisit their heritage in Ireland. Each lived in a different epoch, allowing us to view lands, people, traditions, and history through an every day perspective. The lives of these fictitious women intertwine with the historical events and characters incorporated into the book, until it becomes a patchwork of fiction and biography with a yarn of stories running through it and tying it all together:

“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.”

Ultimately Transatlantic is about the transition from war to peace, and the courage required to make that happen. The bomber-turned-sprinter, the abolitionist suing for freedom, the senator negotiating peace, the nurse bandaging the injured, the grandmother who teaches tennis instead of hunting. From the high-profile to the mundane, every character is important. Every life has a story to tell and a message for us: that large or small, we can make things better.

McCann now runs a non-profit organization called Narrative 4 that seeks to implement social change through the writing of international youth. If you are young and interested in writing for social change, look it up. If not, read Transatlantic and determine, between its poetic lines and eloquent assertions, what Ireland really is, and how to make peace on your own terms.

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