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Book review: TransAtlantic, By Colum McCann

Irish-American history lays its hand upon the present in a novel of journeys and returns

As its title suggests, TransAtlantic – Colum McCann's first novel following the breakout success of Let the Great World Spin, and now long-listed for the Man Booker Prize – is a novel of both destinations and arrivals, of home and away: its subject, the complex relationship between the US and Ireland. Through an ambitious structure, McCann shows how the thrum of history binds the two countries tighter than any politically forced "special relationship", and the transformative power of the past over the present.

TransAtlantic opens in 1919 with a reconstruction of Brown and Alcock's attempt to fly the Atlantic non-stop. From this point we pivot backwards to a famine-ravaged Ireland, the Abolitionist movement and the American Civil War, and forward to the financial crash of 1929, the Good Friday Agreement, and the taming of the Celtic Tiger. Among these events we see the changed world through the experiences of four generations of women – Lily Duggan, Emily Ehrlich, Lottie Tuttle, Hannah Carson – though it is not always clear why the incidents we are witnessing are important to them.

In each case these are unconventional characters; bold and striking. They emerge as fully hewn, full-blooded creations. They have dirt under their fingernails, an understanding of both pleasure and pain, a usually dark sense of humour. In each you can hear the cadence of the past, especially in the final section, in which Hannah – 72, with an incontinent dog – faces the reality of the present, while feeling the hand of the past on her shoulder. It's quite simply one of the best, most sustained pieces of fiction I've read in some time.

TransAtlantic is, however, sometimes hidebound by missteps and false notes. The opening chapter reels off all the clichés of historical fiction. Pointless details (the plane was "14.7 feet long, 15.25 feet high, with a wingspan of 68 feet"), Old Boys and Krauts and Chocks Away, are chucked around with abandon. There are moments of great writing here, but spoiled by phrases such as "chloroform of cold", "sting of snow", "whoosh of wind" and "chandelier of snot" - all in the same paragraph.

McCann's prose is hopped up on metaphor, but the effect often sounds desperate rather than sublime. "The buskers beneath the awning, tromboning the raindrops down" is perfectly, sharply redolent of New York; but "He felt a rod of fear stiffen his shoulders" is just bad thriller-writing. It's this unevenness which mars the book, and stops it from truly singing through its orchestration.

There are other frustrations. The fictional portrait of the still-living Senator George Mitchell sounds like a cross between Bjorn Borg, Superman and George Clooney. The one-sentence paragraphs that strive for profundity too often sound hollow. But these seem mealy-mouthed criticisms when you consider the book as whole, as a tapestry of lives and history, beautifully constructed. Flawed it may be, but TransAtlantic remains a novel of true resonance and power.

Stuart Evers's novel 'If This Is Home' is published by Picador

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