TransAtlantic Journeys, Real and Imagined

Colum McCann’s latest novel did well to live up to my raised expectations and has now become a symbol of a path on the journey of this blog itself. I was always keen to read McCann’s next novel, after the hype of Let the Great World Spin, which I enjoyed although I wouldn’t class it as one of my all-time favourites. TransatlanticHowever, TransAtlantic became a “must read” after I received a hardback copy in the post, in recognition of one of my reviews being profiled on The Guardian’s online book pages, where I occasionally post extracts of reviews and comment under the pseudonym RedBirdFlies. The review that was acknowledged, was Zadie Smith’s NW and you can read what the Guardian had to say about it here.

So thank you to The Guardian Books team for sending me a copy of TransAtlantic, a welcome surprise and wonderful to know that a few of these “word by words” have flown the page and landed elsewhere to an appreciative audience.

Vickers Vimy with Alcock and Brown aboard departs-Newfoundland 14 June 1919

Vickers Vimy with Alcock and Brown aboard departs Newfoundland 14 June 1919

TransAtlantic is a hybrid novel (is that an oxymoron?), in which McCann takes real historical figures, all of whom made a transatlantic journey which subsequently had a bearing on the story of Ireland and re-imagines a part of their story, interspersing the narrative with fictional characters.

He starts with Alcock and Brown in 1919, who ditched their bomb carriers, modifying the Vickers Vimy by taking war out of flight and adding more fuel than had ever been strapped to an aircraft in their attempt to cross the Atlantic non-stop.

The names sounded familiar, but I didn’t know as I began to read who they were, so looked them up and was startled to see Alcock’s date of birth and then death, the same year in which he makes this attempt – are they going to make it I asked? And is it cheating to look up a historical figure in the midst of reading a novel? Brown dies many years later, so I settle back into reading, content they are going to make it. Until I read that Alcock couldn’t swim.

Their preparation and journey are captured by a journalist Emily Ehrlich and her photographer daughter Lottie, who reappear in later chapters, two women whose family have made the crossing many times, the first family member to do so Lily, inspired by meeting Frederick Douglass, who we meet in the second chapter. In a chance encounter with Brown, Lottie asks if he will carry a letter written by her mother to an address in Cork. A letter that survives this entire novel.

Frederick Douglass 1847 by Samuel J Miller (wikipedia)

Frederick Douglass 1847 by Samuel J Miller (wikipedia)

Frederick Douglass visits Ireland while in the throw of becoming a free man, he is spreading the word against slavery, a young abolitionist, a charismatic presence, in awe of how he is received, as an equal, yet disturbed by what he sees outside the warm, accepting rooms of his well-off hosts, the onset of famine in Ireland, people living in more dire conditions, than what he has left, though they are free. It is a humbling experience, as it is for anyone meeting those worse off than they, no matter how tragic one’s own circumstance.

“He thought he knew now what had brought him here – the chance to explore what it felt like to be free and captive at the same time. It was not something even the most aggrieved Irishman could understand. To be in bondage to everything, even the idea of one’s peace.”

A young maid, Lily Duggan is inspired by his presence to abandon her employ and take a ship to America, where she meets mixed fortune, her descendants equally inspired to search for new shores, leading them back full circle to that island of her birth Ireland. It is through the women characters that the threads of narrative are interwoven and connections are made across the years, witness to, or affected by the consequences of those significant events that the men of those first three chapters represent.

These characters might represent us, the population, those that stay in a country generation after generation, some harbouring seeds of revenge, and those who leave, immigrate, seeking utopia, hoping that there does exist, a place where men and women of any race, class, religion or persuasion have an equal chance at bettering their lives.

And as McCann himself says in the interview with Jeffrey Brown:

“Women, as we know, get the short shrift in history.

It’s been largely written and dictated by men, or at least men believe that we own it, and women have really been in those quieter moments at the edge of history. But, really, they’re the ones who are turning the cogs and the wheels and allowing things like the peace process to happen.”

There is something alluring in the novelist who takes on a historical figure and imagines their past, it can bring the past to life in a more animated way; in the present when the media delves into the personal life of an important political or scientific or literary figure, it is deemed an invasion of their privacy, the cult of the celebrity. When a novelist looks back and intertwines the narrative of their accomplishment and the context of their life, their loves, and their thoughts beyond the significant reason that they have become known, it makes them whole and they become characters that we might even relate to.

Entrance to Titanic Museum, Northern Ireland

Past in the Present
Entrance to Titanic Museum, Northern Ireland

“I am partial, still, to the recklessness of the imagination. The tunnels of our loves 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 Möbius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves.”

Whist many authors safely inhabit the lives of historical figures from a distance, many years or centuries after their death, dwelling in the safety of already published and authenticated research, McCann goes one step further by taking as his third character the US Senator, George Mitchell, effectively channeling his thoughts during the day that he journeys to Northern Ireland to broker the Good Friday Peace Agreement. Clearly, this was no mean feat, as the interview comments quoted attest, but he succeeds in creating the man behind the politician, without it seeming like an invasion of his privacy.

McCann’s prose style often reduces to the minimum, he sometimes dispenses with conventions of grammar, reducing his phrases to only the words that describe or evoke the scene or emotion and it is compelling reading. He doesn’t strip beauty from language; if anything he accentuates it by removing the accessories.

I don’t wish to make comparisons, but the only other writer whose prose has that kind of addictive effect on my reading is Cormac McCarthy. They don’t strum their words in the same way, but if they were musicians, they’d both be on my playlist. They possess talent worth dwelling within.

“It is one of their beauties, the Irish, the way they crush and expand the language all at once. How they mangle it and revere it. How they colour even their silences.”

Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland

Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland


38 thoughts on “TransAtlantic Journeys, Real and Imagined

  1. How fitting that you were making a comment on my TransAtlantic post while I was reading yours. And lovely to see that we agree wholeheartedly on this beautiful novel. It was wonderful to hear McCann speak at length at Powell’s about the role of women in history. I may go back and listen to the recording I made to write more on the subject. Yes, let’s cross our fingers on the Booker announcement.


    • And how wonderful that you were ale to listen to the author read and speak about this work and his inspiration. The interviews and audience events add another layer to the experience and often make me enjoy a book all the more for having been given that added insight into their work. I love how Colum McCann puts women back into the historical picture and with significance and talks about this.


  2. Oh Claire what a juicy blog, full of plums. I went straight to the Guardian, and to mix metaphors – what a feather in your cap.
    The idea of a writer acknowledging how history, written by men, has sidelined women and putting them back in their rightful place is wonderful, and oh what a lovely quote at the end -‘ it is one of their beauties..etc.’


  3. Hi, Claire. I’m almost finished with TransAtlantic and really loving it. Occurs to me I’ve never visited Douglass’ grave, which is here in Rochester, so I’m going to try and photograph it for my blog post.
    I like your photos, the one of Ireland is beautiful.


    • I was thinking of you as I posted it remembering that you were reading it this weekend. I was happy to have some personal photos from my visit to Ireland a year ago and thought it poignant that I was staying somewhere overlooking the footprint of the old shipyards, signifying a whole different life 100 years ago, when the Titanic was built and departed those same shores. And 100 years later they opened the museum.

      The last picture of Strangford Lough features in the book. 🙂 A lovely place for a picnic.

      I look forward to seeing your picture of Douglass’ resting place.


  4. It takes a lot of work to pull off a historical novel where the characters are actual people of which much has been written. When it works, it is wonderful. I’ve not read a historical novel in a while, and those I love best have fictional or semi-fictional characters. Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and the sequel War and Remembrance probably top the list.


    • I’m not a big reader of historical fiction either, but I agree, imagining the life of some of those characters can be captivating, I really loved Nancy E Turner’s trilogy, which begins with the book These Is My Words inspired by the story of her own grandmother, living in Arizona in the early 1900’s, an inspiring story and I can’t help but think back on it now, as I read Phillip Meyer’s The Son, which is well researched, but lacks something that Nancy Turner has been able to do with her character, to really get inside her and make the reader feel as if they are there experiencing it all.


  5. Looks like McCann has reprised his ingenious skill of weaving seemingly different characters together to form a meaningful tapestry, just like his Let The Great World Spin, which I enjoyed very much. I’ve been curious about this new book of his, and your post has assured me that yes, I’d enjoy it too. Thanks for a well-written and thorough review!


  6. This book sounds fascinating – not just for the blend of history with imagination, but also for the writing style. It is astonishingly difficult to write historical fiction at the best of times – the details are never those of the non-fiction side of the discipline. Harder still to portray real people, particularly as history is a foreign land. Though a few have done it – I always cite George McDonald Fraser as a master of the technique.


    • And then to blend that with a political figure who is still alive today, easy to just put that in the too hard and uncomfortable basket, but he does it and we imagine the story of the peace process in a whole different way to how it was reported in the media. Fascinating story and process. I hope you get the chance to read it.


  7. I’m very intrigued by the premise of this book . . . Real events are so often the backdrop to fiction, or, as Colum McCann suggested (via Diane Prokop’s feature/review), once a writer puts words down, ‘the real is imagined and the imaginary is real.’ His thoughts re: the role of women in history only heightens my interest. (btw, do I dare admit that I was so caught up your review I didn’t see, until now, that you’re reading my book on the heels of this one?)


    • Yes, I heard him quote that in an interview as well and what a challenge to imagine around the life of a US Senator, said to have been influenced to accept the proposition by his wife, since as she said, few people have read his own books, so she suggestd to him, maybe more people will read about you with someone else writing the story, I think anyone whom Colum McCann writes about is likely to become better known for sure.

      And yes, I loved reading your stories Deborah, I’m still thinking about them and really have to say that there are a couple that could well have become novels, I had the impression I could have kept reading. Watch this space then.


  8. Beautiful review, Claire! I loved the passages you have quoted on women getting the short shrift in history and the comparison of life to a Möbius strip. The first one is very true and the second one is very beautiful. Frederick Douglass’ contemplation on how people who are free are living in more dire circumstances than people who are not free is quite interesting to ponder on. I think freedom triumphs over all other values, but it is sad that freedom alone is not enough. Thanks for this wonderful review!


    • I just went to the Guardian site and checked out your review of ‘NW’. I enjoyed reading it. It is wonderful that your review was featured in the Guardian review pages. Congratulations!


    • I had to look up the Möbius strip and almost included a picture of one, fascinating yet simple thing that they are. I love the McCann is clearly a feminist and good on him for being active in addressing it on behalf of those women throughout history.

      Frederick Douglass was new to me and I am pleased to have learned a little of his story, no doubt this book will spark further interest in him, Valerie who commented above at Books Can Save a Life has just read it as well, and lives near where he is buried, so make sure you check out her blog for what will be an excellent review and insight I am sure.


      • Thanks for the suggestion, Claire. I will check out Valerie’s blog soon.
        Nice to know that you found the Möbius strip interesting. Have you read / checked the cover of Jeffrey Eugenides’ ‘The Marriage Plot’? It has a Möbius strip on the cover and it is quite interesting to think about how it would relate to the story.


      • Hope you get to read Eugenides’ ‘The Marriage Plot’ and like it, Claire. I liked it very much. The cover made it more special.


  9. Fascinating and informative as usual. Great stuff on the Guardian website too, a reason to go there for more than the crossword, this pleases me.


    • These days most of what interests me is on the Culture pages, the rest is so despondent. And the latest book I read The Honey Thief is a an excellent point in case, where else do you read about the joyful stories that get passed down the generations of the Hazara people, within the media stories about people in Afghanistan and the comments that go with them are so negative, it’s really sad. Thankfully through literature, we can learn about some of the more optimistic aspects of their heritage.


      • I will take literature over the media any day…the news these days is nothing but sound bite fluff, unless you can find the few publications where lazy journalism isn’t encouraged. I shall look into The Honey Thief. As always you give a great insight into what is relevant and unique in literature.


  10. This sounds like a book I would like. Historical fiction is always something that adds depth to my understanding of things in general. In homeschooling my son we have been studying the life of Frederick Douglas this week. I haven’t thought about this historical figure in many years, and here he pops up again in your post. It’s so interesting to me how the disparate parts of my life seem to click together on a daily basis. These sorts of connections of course are more likely to happen when you are always reading books. : ) Thanks for another great review!


    • How wonderful to make the connection, I think Frederick Douglass is one of the stars of this book, I certainly went searching to find out more about him and indeed, we meet a number of interesting historical characters in McCann’s book, and while it’s great that he gives them credit, its also kind of sad that the women characters nearly all had to be fictionalised into being.


  11. Pingback: Man Booker Prize Longlist 2013 | Word by Word

  12. What an interesting book and well-done on the review! Well, let’s add another book to the reading list. I don’t think I can miss this one now that my interest has been so acutely piqued! Thanks!
    ~Just Jill


    • Although I haven’t read any of the others yet, this one is a safe recommendation and of interest no matter which side of the Atlantic you reside.

      McCann is an exceptional writer regardless of the nominations and prizes, he deserves reading.

      Thanks for clicking through to the review and commenting Jill. 🙂


  13. I just finished this one and once I saw that you reviewed it on goodreads, I had to read the whole thing. I love how you compared these characters to us, you did it so beautifully. As always, your reviews are top notch and make me want to read another book immediately, Mrs. Claire. : )


    • There always connections, reminders, that reading history that sometimes manages to push itself onto the age. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, it gives me a chance to read the review with fresh eyes as well.

      Well, I will be very happy if I manage to get you to read a Cormac McCarthy, I think you will get what I appreciate about his work. I’m not such a keen follower of those great men of contemporary American literature but McCarthy is definitely my exception, for his prose.


  14. Pingback: TransAtlantic by Colum McCann #BookReview #BriFri | Joy's Book Blog

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