TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann
Published by Random House, 4th June 2013
Genres: historical fiction, Irish literature, cultural
As the title suggests, this wonderful book spans two continents, and multiple centuries as well. The first part of the book tells the stories of three notable Atlantic crossings. The first, although not historically, is the tale of the first two men to fly nonstop across the Atlantic, from Canada to Ireland in 1919. Next comes Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave turned author, orator and abolitionist, who journeys to Ireland on a book tour in 1845. And finally, Senator George Mitchell, who frequently travels to Ireland and back, to play a major role in the Good Friday Agreements in 1998.
Although separated by many years, social classes and situations, the lives of these men are intertwined, through an extraordinary lineage of women. It is their story which is told in the second part of the book. A story of hard lives and hard work, emigration and return home, family, loss and love. Through the generations of women, we are shown a different perspective on these famous events and their interactions with these famous men.
Personally, I found that the second part of the book captured my attention more than the first. I really love when authors flip history on its edge and relate it from the women’s perspective, a side of history which is very rarely shown, as history has, historically, been made and recorded by men.
For example, a woman’s view of the American Civil War; no heroic battles, no glorious victories or terrible defeats. Only the fear of not knowing if your son will return, the struggles of working at a field hospital, behind the scenes of the savagery of war.
Or else, when it comes time to sell the family business; the three sons receive an equal share in the business, whereas it is inconceivable that the only daughter should get anything at all. She will stay and look after her ageing mother for the rest of her life.
Throughout the book, the portrayal of the varying mother-daughter relationships really hit home. As we all know, no two relationships are the same, as no two people are the same, but I think that most women could find themselves, at least in part, in one of McCann’s characters. I did! The only daughter I mentioned above is very different from her mother. She loves to read, whereas her mother has never learned to read or write. I am far from saying that my own mother cannot read or write! But I recognized something of myself in this quote:
“Often Lily found the young girl asleep with her long hair inserted in the pages, a sort of bookmark.”
I can easily imagine my mum coming across me in a very similar situation and it made me smile.
Having read McCann’s previous work, Let the Great World Spin, I had high hopes for this book, and I really enjoyed it.
My rating: 4/5