When I was in graduate school, I wrote a paper on women's memoirs. One of the points that kept popping up in research is that, historically, memoirs were only written by Important People and, historically, Important People only included men. The result is that we often have to use less direct methods to discern what life was like for the women: unless we can read their diaries, letters and the like, the only stories we are left with have been filtered through men's lenses and only reflect the small roles women played in men's stories.
That's what I kept thinking about while reading TransAtlantic
Like he did in Let the Great World Spin
Colum McCann explores multiple stories using a common thread to connect them. In Spin
, it was Philippe Petite's tightrope walk, a single event that each character witnessed in some way. Here, the stories are spread over the course of 150 years and are connected by the titular theme of transatlantic crossings and four generations of women from the same family.
The first half of the book tells the men's side of history, which is certainly the more famous half: the first men to fly nonstop from Canada to Ireland, Frederick Douglass' trip to Ireland at the outset of the potato famine, and an American politician sent to negotiate the Good Friday Agreement. The second half looks at how these important events affect and are affected by women. The women's stories plumb greater depths, often spanning lifetimes of struggle or experience as opposed to a single event. The two halves are not necessarily direct responses to each other -- the women's stories typically took place a number of years before or after the men's -- and I'm not sure I ever got a firm grasp on what it was that McCann was trying to say about the roles men and women have played in history.
McCann is a master of prose, though. I don't think it would be a stretch to say that a lot of people read him for his way with words more than for the plot. I enjoyed his writing here, for the most part, though the stories ultimately had less resonance for me. I attributed that to the fact that he was exploring ideas and techniques so similar to Spin
, simply on a broader scale. I'd recommend this for fans, but I don't think it'll stick with me.
Thanks to Random House for the advanced review copy!