TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

TransAtlantic is a tale of Ireland and America. Two airmen exorcise their terrible experiences in the first world war by rebuilding a Vimy and flying it across the Altantic to Ireland. A young woman leaves Ireland to build a new life in America. Frederick Douglass travels to Ireland to elicit support for the abolition of slavery. A journalist and her daughter come to Ireland to seek a letter that was never delivered, and a US senator gives himself to securing the Good Friday agreement. The various narratives cover more than a hundred years through many diverse characters. The novel starts kind of in the middle and moves forwards and backwards, creating a network of patterns and connections which hold the reader and won’t let go.

TransAtlantic is what happens when a writer hands over to his or her readers. I owned my reading of TransAtlantic in a way that hasn’t happened with the other Man Booker longlist novels I’ve read so far. After all, what is the point in reading a novel if neither reader nor novel is changed by the experience? No one likes being told what to think, however well it’s done. Novels can be too self-sufficient, inviting the reader to admire, but nothing more. Or they can be too self-conscious, leaving the reader wandering in the dark without a candle wondering whether they’ve got it right. For me, the best novels have the courage and confidence to bring the reader to the party. McCann issues no overt instructions to his reader. It’s up to the reader to shrink in fear as the open-topped plane flies into freezing cloud. To cringe at the blood and amputations in the field hospital. To sigh with recognition when a character familiar from history walks into the scene. To admire the widow who takes on her husband’s business, and to experience her grief. Not with an invitation to look at this very unhappy character, but with the swooshing sound of a cake of blue ice being pushed over the surface of a frozen lake.

The consequence of handing over to the reader in this way is this: A lonely woman walks through the wild landscape of the home she’s on the verge of losing and you – you, the reader, who have been party to stories of her past that even she’s not aware of  – for a brief moment, you, the reader, have the universe in the palm of your hand. It takes not only a brilliant writer, but a generous writer, and a trusting one, to create that kind of reader thrill.

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