Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Colum McCann, _TranAtlantic_

I MEANT TO read but never got around to reading McCann's prize-winning Let the Great World Spin, so this, the July selection in our book club, is the first of his novels I've read.

I'm of two minds.

I did not enjoy McCann's style. The sentences are short, clipped. Often present tense. Sometimes only fragments.  A lot like this. Page after page. Drove me crazy.

Structurally, though, the novel was intriguing. It begins with three widely-separated historical vignettes, the first non-stop airplane flight across the Atlantic, Frederick Douglass's lecture to Ireland, and George Mitchell's successful negotiation of the Good Friday Accords. Threaded through these episodes and developed more extensively in the middle section of the novel is the story of four generations of Irish women, starting with Lily, a servant who is inspired by her encounter with Douglass to emigrate to the United States, and ending with Hannah, whose son was murdered in the Troubles.  In between, we have Emily, a journalist living in Canada, and Lottie, who returns to the old sod via marriage with (neat twist) an Orangeman.

Thematically, too, the novel had some appeal, with the criss-crossing of fortunes between Ireland and North America, and the long shots that come through against all expectation--Alcock and Brown land their plane, slavery is abolished, Mitchell succeeds where so many had failed for so long. The same spirit of possibility and willingness to persist in the face of likely defeat animates the stories of the four women.

The historical pieces worked--especially the flight, very vividly narrated, and the Douglass section, which made him affectingly human. The Mitchell section was maybe a bit off, weirdly intimate at times (he mulls when to take his shoes off during a transatlantic flight, ponders his son's loaded diaper) without conveying much idea of how he strategized his thorny and seemingly impossible task.

All in all, I think there was enough to like here that I should still give Let the Great World Spin a... spin. I hope it is not written in that same stop-and-start fashion, though. Because I could not stand it.  Not at all. It would annoy me. It would.

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