Transatlantic by Colum McCann explores public and private lives

Of the three Irish novels long listed for the 2013 Man Booker Award, Transatlantic by Colum McCann is the one I most enjoyed. The novel is a work of fiction built around three factual stories concerning journeys across the Atlantic between the United States of America and Ireland from 1845–1998: the 1919 transatlantic flight of Alcock and Brown in a converted World War I Vickers Vimy bomber; the anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglas’s visit to Ireland in 1845/46; and George Mitchell’s cross-Atlantic flights during the negotiations leading to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Interwoven in the stories of these public figures is a series of connected private stories of women from four generations of the same family: Lily Duggan, a famine emigrant; Emily Ehrlich her journalist daughter; Emily’s daughter, Lottie, and Lottie’s daughter, Hannah.

Of the public stories, while the Alcock and Brown flight is the one that has had most attention in coverage of this novel that I have seen, it was the stories of Douglas and Mitchell that I found most engaging. The Douglas chapter vividly and believably depicts Ireland at the beginning of the famine illustrating the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ while the Mitchell chapter focuses on the personal human aspects of a very high-profile, high-stakes public process.

The links between these public characters and the private characters whose lives they directly touch across the generations shows how history shapes not just public events but also individual lives and that while time moves forward and circumstances shift, the essence of humanity remains constant.

So there are aspects of Transatlantic by Colum McCann that are universal, and that transcend the ordinary and while some of the devices in the story — such as the letter that links Lily Duggan to Hannah — are perhaps not as strong as they could have been, overall this is a satisfying and moving read.

Transatlantic by Colum McCann was shortlisted for the 2015 Impac Literary award.

Transatlantic by Colum McCann is published by Bloomsbury. ISBN (ePub) 9781408834152; (pbk) 9781408841280; (hbk) 9781408829370.