My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Colum McCann’s “Transatlantic” uses characters who travel between America and Ireland during major historical events: the first flight by Alcock and Brown from Newfoundland to Galway in 1919; the public speaking tour of Ireland by ex-slave Frederick Douglass in 1845; U.S. Senator George Mitchell’s brokering of the Good Friday agreement of 1998. The novel loops back and forward in time and between continents, tracking descendants of the main characters and showing how their predecessors’ actions affect their lives.
Clearly McCann has done significant research into these events. By looking at them from ‘inside the heads’ of the characters, McCann does not try to fool us into a belief in complete historical accuracy – rather he is imagining a possible perspective on the inner lives of these major figures. I found the depiction of Belfast towards the end of ‘the Troubles’, particularly convincing, maybe because I’ve spent time in Northern Ireland. He never names George Mitchell, but the portrait is a highly empathetic one.
In the acknowledgements, at the end of the book, McCann thanks George and Heather Mitchell and Tony Blair amongst others, for their help in writing the book. For a novelist to gain direct access to such major figures is remarkable.
McCann writes beautifully. Each period is conjured up convincingly: a lengthy and horrific description of Douglass’s trip across Ireland during the Famine; Alcock and Brown’s flight and eventual landing on the west coast of Ireland; Mitchell’s negotiations in Stormont – these are passages which have great authenticity.
A book well worth reading, which encourages you to dig deeper into the events on which it is based.