‘Transatlantic’ has a wandering spirit

Reading this book was like riding a roller coaster of emotions. Prior to claiming it off the library hold list I was excited about tackling it, having read some very positive reviews. Then I started reading it. My excitement diminished page by page as I struggled to understand why the story jumped around in time and place, from Newfoundland after World War I to Ireland in the 1840s to Missouri in the late 19th century. Each stop seemed completely unrelated to the one that came before and the one that followed. I began to wonder how on earth this disjointed mess had earned such lavish praise.

Then, finally, I realized that what had seemed to be completely unrelated chapters were actually tied together through the family lines of Lily Duggan, who was a maid in a fancy Dublin home when former slave Frederick Douglass comes to Ireland to drum up support for the American abolition movement. Each chapter had somewhere at its heart a descendant of Lily, from the Civil War mother who helps her husband run an ice-cutting empire in the American Midwest to the journalist who chronicles one of the first transatlantic flights to the woman who loses everything in contemporary Ireland.

Once I found the common thread, my interest and appreciation for the book picked up. I enjoyed most the chapters devoted to Douglass’ sojourn in Ireland and a visit more than century later by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, trying desperately to bring Catholics and Protestants to a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. None of the stories end in triumph; the most we can hope for, McCann implies, is a sense of quiet satisfaction and no expectation of glory. Many of the characters do not achieve even┬áthat minor grace, and my heart ached for some of their stories and lives.

Although by the end I was appreciating McCann’s cleverness and deft interweaving of timelines and placelines, I just can’t give this book my highest recommendation. I don’t need or want to be hit over the head with an anvil by an author trying to convey the themes he will explore, but to read roughly a third of a book without having any idea where it’s going seemed a shade too opaque for any but the most dedicated English major used to parsing meaning from prose.