Monday, 16 June 2014

The Long and Short of It: TransAtlantic

Book: TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
Format: Trade Paperback (I own a copy)

We're past the half way point now of last year's Man Booker Prize longlist, and I'm definitely finding that this sort of reading makes for a lot of diversity.  Colum McCann's TransAtlantic is a series of interlinked narratives that experiment with the idea of Irish identity in relation to a changing interaction with America and Britain (depending on the level of influence these countries have in the time period used as setting.)  Narrative one tells the story of two World War One pilots who are attempting to fly across the ocean from America to Ireland, and the media furore that follows their wait for good weather.  In particular, two journalists are singled out: Emily Ehrlich and her daughter Lottie, who are tenacious reporters but outsiders in the eyes of the other journalists.  The second narrative follows Frederick Douglass on his tour of Ireland following the publication of his book against the slave trade in his home country of America.  Douglass, a black man, attracts a lot of attention everywhere he goes, and is startled by the astonishing poverty of the Irish working class.  He keeps a set of weights in his luggage so that his muscles do not diminish now that he is no longer doing slave work.  The final thread of the narrative is that of a politician in the modern (but pre 9/11) era.  Senator Mitchell is in advanced years but has a young wife and a five or so month old son, whom he is constantly leaving to fly between Dublin, Washington and New York.

The premise of this book seems to be to document the view of the outsider as they traverse unfamiliar territory.  Much time is spent developing feelings of not belonging, of shock or outrage, or a sense of something being off kilter.  As for the story, there actually appears to be very little to it.  The book is a slow, considerate read.  It is written in a slightly clunky style which is given to repetition and explanations that are somewhat unnecessary and obscure the reader's ability to get to know the characters.  One hundred or so pages in, I gave up on reading this book to the end, because I felt no connection to the characters or the landscape.  The tone of each segment, however, was beautifully realised, and very different from the one before it.  Immediately the reader is in that era and feeling the emotion of the time.  Particularly in the scenes with Douglass, as a reader I felt the cold, smelt the damp, pictured the hollow eyes of the hungry.  The imagery was sharp, but a little over-emphasised.

I think perhaps if I had any understanding of Irish identity this novel would ring truer for me.  As it stands, I didn't finish it, and on the basis of the writing and my inability to find something to connect to and keep me interested, I give this book two stars.

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