Sunday, March 2, 2014

Transatlantic by Colum McCann

Novels like Transatlantic intrigue me. They commence as one kind of book and then metamorphose into something totally different. Written in the style of his National Book Award winner, Let the Great World Spin, the novel spans years and places but is tied to one familiar place for McCann - Ireland. 

It begins on the coast of Newfoundland in 1919 as John Alcock and Arthur Brown make preparations for their transatlantic flight. They have spent hours outfitting an old bomber for the flight. Before they take off they are handed a letter by Emily Ehrlich, a reporter for the local paper who lives with her daughter Lottie.  As quickly as they land in a bog in Ireland, the action turns to another time and place, Frederick Douglass' trip to Ireland in 1845.

Douglass is on a speaking tour in Ireland just a few years after his escape from slavery. His message is powerful and the reader gets a glimpse of a bit of history that is often forgotten. He stays with a family by the name of Webb and is tended to by their maid, Lily. Years later the reader is reacquainted with Lily Duggan as she tends to wounded soldiers in the Civil War. 

And then a leap to the 20th where George Mitchell, U.S. Special Envoy for Northern Ireland, is hastily leaving his wife and baby for one of the many treks across the Atlantic in efforts to broker peace with the Northern Irish factions. This was an interesting part of the book, but seemed weak in comparison to the other segments. The year is 1998 and the historic Good Friday agreement is signed.

Throughout the entire book there is a thread that keeps it all tied together - the daughters of Lily Duggan and their tie to Ireland. As the time passes from one generation to the next, they are connected and nurtured by one another and their heritage. In each section McCann gives them a strong voice and identifiable character. The Atlantic is that wide body that allows them to go away, but yet come home. It is the constant as their lives change. A wonderful book and interwoven story that shouldn't be passed over. Very much looking forward to the lecture on this book on 10 March 2014.

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