Colum McCann, “TransAtlantic”

Once again I’m struck by how I’m reading as well as what I’m reading. Game of Thrones fans won’t be surprised to know that I’m well into the second book of that series — but I interrupted the Westeros action with TransAtlantic, a book I acquired in part for its beautiful cover. (When you do a reading at the magnificent R.J. Julia book store in Madison, CT, they give you any book you want off their shelves in thanks, which is total magic!) I also loved Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, and was intrigued by the premise of TransAtlantic, which traces the web that connects a group of Irish and American characters across some 150 years.

Can you read the book mark? It says "You Are Here," perfect for this book.

Can you read the book mark? It says “You Are Here,” perfect for this book.

So — on the Kindle, Starks and Lannisters. On paper, Lily Duggan and George Mitchell. Completely different agendas from these two authors. Completely different effects on this reader. The difference between a double espresso and a cup of green tea. Each has its merits, but you probably shouldn’t go switching back and forth because the former will overpower the latter.

And that really isn’t fair.  TransAtlantic is more subtle, not weaker.  An early section sees Frederick Douglass in the 1840s on a lecture tour of famine-ridden Ireland and it packs a terrible punch. Later on we participate in the negotiations for the Good Friday peace accords, narrated through the viewpoint of Senator George Mitchell, and McCann injects great urgency into the effort. What I missed here, though, was a certain lyrical hook that made Let the Great World Spin emotionally affecting. In TransAtlantic, McCann seemed a little bit detached from the narration; he lays out his incidents like Scrabble tiles and lets you put the words together. I think I needed more vowels. Even the final, elegiac segment of the novel that unites the disparate themes is somewhat recessive. And what are those themes? McCann gives this statement to Senator Mitchell:

All those ships out there. All those generations that left. Seven hundred years of history. We prefigure our futures by imagining our pasts. To go back and forth. Across the waters. The past, the present, the elusive future. A nation. Everything constantly shifted by the present. The taut elastic of time.

Or, as an earlier character says in a letter, “We seldom know what echo our actions will find, but our stories will most certainly outlast us.”

The funny thing is that Game of Thrones deals with these ideas, too — with the importance of history and the way it’s passed down; the persistence of war and the role stories play in creating or interpreting battles; even the importance of the physical setting to the action of a tale. There’s a lot of cold water in TransAtlantic. There’s a lot of cold everything in A Clash of Kingsthe GoT volume I’m currently reading. Maybe the contrast comes down to the question of more versus less — which is obvious from the books’ respective covers.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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