In Colum McCann’s ‘TransAtlantic,’ ‘nothing ever finishes’


Meet the author

Who: Colum McCann

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables

Info: 305-442-4408 or

The opening three sections of Colum McCann’s new novel are gripping, immersive and suspenseful, written in words that sing. Each could be a great short story on its own, with fully developed characters caught in history-making moments. But could they be linked into a cohesive whole, a novel?

The answer, thankfully, is yes. The first half of TransAtlantic is so strong, readers would be terribly disappointed if the rest didn’t hold up. McCann, a National Book award winner for Let the Great World Spin, does more than that, elegantly linking his sometimes disparate characters through themes of identity and history, tying them together in subtle ways that build through the span of 150 years. The echoes of Ireland and its diaspora — McCann was born in Dublin but lives and teaches in New York — also run through the narrative, another unifying factor.

But mostly, McCann pulls it off through his seductive writing. His words carry the story on a current that feels like a force of nature. In vivid, short bursts of sentences, he follows the internal stream-of-consciousness of his characters, wrapping the reader in words. His writing is gutsy and controlled, powerful in its focus.

The book begins with figures straight from history: aviators Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown, attempting the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic to Ireland in a modified World War I bomber; escaped slave Frederick Douglass on an international lecture tour through famine-plagued Ireland to build support for the abolitionist cause, and U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, son of an Irish American father, trying to build a lasting peace in Northern Ireland amid suspicion and deep bitterness.

Within those three different stories of crossing the Atlantic, McCann sows the seeds of the stories that follow. An Irish housemaid named Lily Duggan who meets Douglass reappears later in the book, followed by her daughter and granddaughter. The lives of the women — the second half of the book — are explored in greater detail than the men’s, showcasing the hardships the women faced and the hopes of previous generations that resided in them. Perhaps the emphasis on women is McCann’s way of saying that although men traditionally take center stage in history, women’s lives can have just as much import, especially in determining the daily warp and woof of life.

Adding a layer of intrigue to the women’s lives: A letter from a mother and daughter to a family in Cork is sent on the plane with the two aviators. If it arrives on Ireland’s shores, it will be among the first transatlantic letters ever. “What a surprise is it when distance finally breaks,” one of the letter-writers thinks.

But the letter will remain unopened on the other side of the Atlantic for generations, a paper question mark, a crumbling envelope filled with promise. Could it have links to Douglass, making it valuable for history’s sake? And once opened, would it lose all value? McCann toys with the idea of the letter, of writing, of storytelling itself, as something that ties generations together. All stories, he notes, have to look backward as well as forward: “We seldom know what echo our actions will find, but our stories will most certainly outlast us.”

He bookends his novel with scenes from a single house by the water. In the prologue, a woman listens to sounds coming from the roof — a ping, then a rumble — as gulls drop oysters on the slate roof to break open the shells. At the conclusion of the book, the house returns with greater significance, a symbol of family and history and the sometimes mundane intersections that make up a life.

For McCann, though, there is also always the view from afar, the one glimpsed on those transatlantic crossings, where the bigger picture reveals itself like the miracle of earth slipping away beneath the wings of a descending plane:

“In the distance, the mountains. The quiltwork of stone walls. Corkscrew roads. Stunted trees. An abandoned castle. A pig farm. A church. And there, the radio towers to the south. Two-hundred-foot masts in a rectangle of lockstep, some warehouses, a stone house sitting on the edge of the Atlantic. It is Clifden, then, Clifden. The Marconi Towers. A great net of radio masts. They glance at each other. No words. Bring her down. Bring her down.”

Amy Driscoll is a Miami Herald editor.

Read more Books stories from the Miami Herald

 <span class="cutline_leadin">STONE MATTRESS: </span>Nine Tales. Margaret Atwood. Nan A. Talese. Doubleday. 288 pages. $25.95.


    Past looms large in new stories from Margaret Atwood

    In Margaret Atwood’s new collection, the past looms large for aging protagonists, but sympathy and regret abound, too.

  • What are you reading now?

    “I just finished Claire DeWitt and The City of the Dead by Sara Gran, which I love, love, loved. It’s a mystery set in New Orleans shortly after the storm and solved by girl detective, Claire DeWitt, who applies her special method of detection which is pretty much based on yoga and Buddhism combined with the altered mind states of drugs, drink, dreams and growing up in Brooklyn.”

 <span class="cutline_leadin">WHAT STAYS IN VEGAS:</span> The World of Personal Data — Lifeblood of Big Business C — and the End of Privacy as We Know It. Adam Tanner. PublicAffairs. 316 pages. $27.99.


    ‘What Stays in Vegas’ examines data packaging and the end of privacy

    Journalist explains how data packaging makes American companies the biggest threat to privacy.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category