Book Review: TransAtlantic

by Colum McCann 304 pages. Random House. $27.

“A couple of hours into the flight Brown hears a light snap. He puts on his goggles, leans over the fuselage, watches the small propeller on the wireless generator spin uselessly for a second, shear, then break away. No radio now. No contact with anyone…But not just this. One snap might lead to another. One piece of metal fatigue and the whole plane might come apart.”

At that point, I quickly put my copy of this novel aside. We, too, were a couple of hours into a flight over the North Atlantic and although we weren’t flying in a modified two-engine World War I bomber, it somehow didn’t seem like the best possible time to be reading about metal fatigue and planes coming apart.

I’d read enough, however, to regret having missed reading Colum McCann before. I’m certainly going to go back and read his 2009 National Book Award-Winning Let the Great World Spin. And once we landed, I happily returned to TransAtlantic.

In it, McCann skillfully intertwines three major historical stories: the Irish lecture tour of Frederick Douglas in 1845, the first non-stop flight from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1919, and Senator George Mitchell’s negotiation of The Good Friday Agreement in Ireland in 1998. All involve trans-Atlantic journeys that mingle Ireland and America and all are exquisitely written.

McCann’s prose bridges the chasms between continents, between past and present, and most of all, between human beings. In his words, “The tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again. We return to the lives of those who have gone before us, a perplexing möbius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves.”


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