Few people can tell of rising from the depths of Death’s murky embrace. In Colum McCann’s most recent novel he endeavours to bring those to life who can.
TransAtlantic spans the course of three centuries, interweaving the stories of liberated slave Frederick Douglass, transatlantic pilots John Alcock and “Teddy” Brown, and American senator George Mitchell with a modest ease that will surprise any who know of the trio’s respective pasts. In McCann’s book, these men inspire and thrill their audiences, creating everlasting impressions on all who meet them. More important in the novel, though, is the role of matriarchal Ireland and her succession of women—both fictional and not—who bear the brunt of their nation’s troubles and ultimately drive the book’s plot line.
While not a large book, TransAtlantic has been split into three smaller sections, the last two-thirds of which are dedicated wholly to the descendants of Lily Duggan, an Irish housemaid who first met Frederick Douglass during his stay in Dublin. While the maternal genesis is initially unclear, the reader eventually realizes that from 1845 to 2012 the women we are following are of Duggan lineage. Time and time again these women experience hardship and grief, strife not only from personal loss, but also from Ireland’s bitter religious battles and the relentless cruelty of the country’s unforgiving landscape.
I can’t say I particularly empathized with any of the book’s characters, and I strongly question the believability of the thoughts and actions of the novel’s protagonist in the present, Hannah. That being said, TransAtlantic is a book I would recommend bringing along for a plane ride or a visit to the beach; it does for Ireland what Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief did for Cape Breton. Recommended for those interested in history, ancestry, and all things Irish.
- Gabriele Simmons