TransAtlantic: a review

It's not often that a work of fiction surprises me the way Colum McCann's TransAtlantic did.

To being with, I was fascinated by his sentences. It takes skill to write a series of short declarative sentences without driving readers into boredom or frustration. But McCann managed to do it in a way that crystallized both the topic and the emotional charge. And he knew when to stop; to make the switch to longer, more melodic sentences. Reading those words was like a dance, and in the beginning, especially, I often found myself more intrigued by the art than by the story. Take this paragraph, for example:

Alcock had piloted air-service fighters. Small bombs fell away from the undercarriage of his plane. A sudden lightness to the machine. A kick upwards into the night. He leaned out from his open cockpit and watched the mushroom of smoke rise below.

Or this:

The storm made the carriage list sideways. Douglass looked for a crack of light in the clouds. None came. Rain fell more steadily now. Gray and unrelenting. Nobody seemed to notice. Rain on the puddles. Rain on the high brickwork. Rain on the slate roofs. Rain on the rain itself.

I've never been a World War I fighter pilot but in those few short sentences I could feel the lift of the plane and the satisfaction of the pilot. And I quickly joined Douglass in hearing and feeling and recoiling from the unrelenting rain. This kind of writing is almost magical and one can see why McCann's earlier book, Let the Great World Spin, won the National Book Award.

TransAtlantic fictionalizes three disparate and historic figures: Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown, who attempted the first transatlantic flight in 1919; Frederick Douglass, a black abolitionist who visited Dublin on a speaking tour in 1845–45; and Senator George Mitchell, who guided Northern Ireland's turbulent peace process. You wonder, as you read, what these characters have in common. On the surface there is nothing but Ireland itself. But then about half-way through, you turn the page and there's it is. "Aha," you say, "how clever," and you read greedily on. And as the story carries you with it, the connections mount.

I don't want to give too much away. But if you're looking for a finely written novel that will make you ponder life's strange and oh-so-connected paths, I can highly recommend TransAtlantic. (Random House, 2013)