To Read Is to Fly

“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.” 
― Alberto Manguel

 

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TransAtlantic - Colum McCann I was very happy to win a copy of TransAtlantic from Goodreads in return for an honest review. I had been looking forward to this novel for some time. As I have mentioned before, I tend to be very picky about historical fiction -- an occupational hazard for some historians. I want engaging style as well as good research, and I sometimes have difficulty focusing on the characters and the plot instead of historical details. I also tend to shudder at some writers' tendency to name drop as many famous historical figures as they can.

In TransAtlantic, McCann does not disappoint. As he moves back and forth over time and across space, he does include famous historical figures in the first half of the novel -- Frederick Douglass, George Mitchell, and, in the beautifully crafted opening chapters, Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown. All are men, all move back and forth across the Atlantic, from England to Ireland or from the United States to Ireland. McCan explores different understandings of freedom and constraint as he moves his readers from setting to setting, as we sit in a fragile airplane with Alcock and Brown, looking for the Irish coast to appear through the mist, as we watch with Frederick Douglass as he witnesses the struggles of the Irish during the Great Famine, as we walk the halls of Stormont with George Mitchell, striving for peace in Northern Ireland.

I easily could populate this review with photographs of these historical figures. They are all inspiring men, and McCann writes about them with a reserved awe, all the more so because he depicts them with their humanity intact (perhaps with the exception of George Mitchell, who comes across as dignified and contained, definitely admirable, but not always 100% human). But the heart and soul of TransAtlantic is not so much in these historical figures, as in the women that McCann creates, related by blood, circling these famous men like satellites while they engage in their own battles for freedom and family. Lily (Bridie) Fitzpatrick, née Lily Duggan, who meets Frederick Douglass while she was working as a maid in Dublin and who travels across the Atlantic in search of the freedom that he represents to her. Her daughter Emily, and he granddaughter Lottie, who cover the flight of Alcock and Brown as journalist and photographer, breaking barriers of gender. Lottie's later life in Northern Ireland with her family -- her husband Ambrose, her daughter Hannah, and her grandson Tomas, all seeking peace in the family lough in the shadow of The Troubles. And finally, Hannah's struggles with memory, loss, and a history that remains raw and personal.

McCann's structure for this novel works beautifully. I've read comparisons with David Mitchell's structure for Cloud Atlas, but TransAtlantic remains much more contained and personal, because of family ties and McCann's interweaving of characters from section to section. He reminds us that history is not only made by famous people who have pages in history textbooks and shelves of libraries devoted to them. There are also people living their lives, sustaining hopes and coping with heartache, spiraling around them. These individuals are not simply touched by history--they create history, they curate it and own it and try desperately to find ways to connect themselves to their pasts, to their loved ones and memories, while looking ahead into an uncertain future. McCann brings these people, all of us, alive through the experiences of the women in his novel.

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