Saturday, August 17, 2013

Transatlantic - and thinking on the Booker

Rather an odd longlist has been published for the Booker Prize and hard to judge considering two of the thirteen won't be published until September and one due out mid August, about now.   Three are from Irish authors including TransAtlantic by Colum McCann.   The weightiest - and one of the more interesting titles - is Richard House's The Kill but being effectively four books in one and with more than 1000 pages, not one to take to bed and fall asleep over.

Having been enthralled by Let The Great World Spin, I was anticipating great delights from TransAtlantic but let me say straight off, McCann disappoints.   The book is divided into two sections, the first being essentially nonfiction or rather his read of actual events and the second is pure fiction.   To marry fiction and nonfiction, something we are seeing more and more of, is hard to pull off and rarely succeeds well.   Perhaps it is the effort of delivering a true account of the nonfiction element that skewers the author's style complicated by the difficulty of marrying it with fiction.   Whatever the problem, this book lacks the stylish flow and lyricism of writing we got in Let The Great World Spin.   The connection of the fictional characters to the actual events is artificial and the whole is not really cohesive.

Set in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, McCann paints an ambitious panoply of events on both sides of the Atlantic - in fact he leaps forward and back across the Pond with a panache the envy of modern travellers.   He covers the Famine, the American Civil War, Daniel O'Connell, the Troubles, the Wall Street Crash and a nod towards two World Wars and the current banking crisis.   The first section gives us a take on the Alcock and Brown transAtlantic flight followed by a long piece on the visit to Ireland of an ex-slave Frederick Douglass on a speaking tour organised by his Irish publisher in 1845 to raise money in the British Isles for the abolition cause.   This then is followed by a piece on George Mitchell sent to Northern Ireland by President Carter in 1998 and who was instrumental in bring about the peace process in the Good Friday Agreement.

The second section comprises four chapters on four women, descendants of each other, and establishes their links - if somewhat tenuous - to these three events and the effects on them and their lives by being touched by what they have seen or heard.   The first woman is Lily who is working as a housemaid in the house visited by Douglass in Dublin and who decides to emigrate to the States at age seventeen in 1846 - why is not really clear.   This chapter is followed then by ones on Lily's daughter, granddaughter and great granddaughter who, predictably, is fighting with her bank to retain her home.  

The nonfiction section is at times interesting with snippets of information that McCann has done some indepth research to discover but is at times laboured and clunky.   It is only when he moves into the second section and the lives of his four women that the narrative flows in a way we expect from him.   Their connection to the events described however is a rather thin thread.   A holiday read, not a Booker winner.

Available in trade paperback at £12.99, published by Bloomsbury 

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