In fiction, I tend not to love the epic arc, starched folds of history made ready to be put away with lavender tucked between them. There are exceptions: Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture and William Boyd's Any Human Heart both notable among them. Colum McCann's TransAtlantic also belongs there.
I winced a little as I went through the second half and the fragments of the first were pulled together, like a silk cord gathering a purse, tightening its contents and creating a shared sense of belonging. Some readers will love that best of all. What I loved most was the range of voices. For as much as there was an epic overarch, there were beautifully drawn characters that compelled and moved me. I fell in love with these women (mostly) and with these moments in history.
And when I think about it, I can say it was those things that resonated in the Boyd and the Barry too. I like the micro; the internalism and the smell of stone and rain boots, the descriptions of flight and the sense of self in relation to what has come before and what will be left after. For me, it could as well not come together, and still there would yet be a unity of course and idea and voice.
Novels that weave different stories run a risk of pulling readers away from characters they related more deeply to and thrusting them into narratives that are there more for structural purposes. I felt this way about being yanked from Douglass and cast into the George Mitchell section (though perhaps as a reader Northern Ireland peace talks make me feel weary).
And much as McCann ignites the lives of unknown women, juxtaposing them against historical male figures, he lets all his characters flicker out without ceremony. And of course that can be a great leveller, but it also left me as a reader at a bit of a loss when characters I felt attached to were dropped out of the story as the structure propelled it forward.
I read TransAtlantic while I was at home. When I travel to Ireland, I'm always cognisant of those who have worn that deep furrow in the map before me, especially those who travelled during times of starvation or unemployment or The Troubles. McCann's book wraps a beautiful recurring narrative around this well-worn path and grounds it in history as much as fiction. He's a dab hand at this, as we also saw in Let the Great World Spin. Still... much as I enjoyed TransAtlantic (more than The Great World), I would love to see from him a simpler tale in the future.