Book Club Banter

Review of 'TransAtlantic' by Colum McCann
By Kathy Olsen Adult Services Librarian, Haywood County Library | Jan 15, 2014

Colum McCann’s stunning sixth novel, "TransAtlantic," is a brilliant tribute to his Irish homeland, an ode to the ties that, across time and space, bind Ireland to the United States.

The story begins with three transatlantic crossings, each written as a novella within the novel. First is the 1919 flight of British aviators Alcock and Brown, second is Frederick Douglass’ 1845 visit to Ireland; and the last is of Senator George Mitchell’s many trips made to broker peace in Northern Ireland in 1998.

Not at all unlike his 2009 novel "Let the Great World Spin," "TransAtlantic" is lyrical, poignant and quite melancholic. In the novella set in, we briefly meet Emily Ehrlich as she watches the young airmen emerge from the carnage of their plane after landing roughly in the very first non-stop transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to the western part of Ireland.

Among the mail they are carrying is a letter that her mother, Lily, wrote when she first left Ireland 74 years earlier. The letter (which is not opened for almost 100 years) is a thread that gets picked up later on in the book. The story then travels back in time to when Lily was 17 and working as a maid. She meets Frederick Douglass on his tour of Ireland during a great famine.

This storyline illuminates a fascinating period of history, and offers little-known details of Douglass’ life. Douglass inspires Lily to leave for New York and embrace the freedoms there, but life in the New World isn’t as it seems on the surface.

When McCann was asked how he came up with the idea for the story on PBS’ NewsHour, he responded, “It was conceived originally because I was just fascinated by the story of Frederick Douglass landing in Ireland in 1845, this 27-year-old abolitionist who was still a slave at the time, and then finding a country where the people were poorer than the people he had left behind.”

And finally, the last novella in the book revolves around Senator Mitchell, working for elusive peace in Ireland in 1998. In each separate novella, there are unconventional characters: bold and striking and very real. And as the personal stories — both factual and fictional — are woven together, we see that life is hard and full of disappointments, but that there are also triumphs, and always hope.

Though the descriptions are at times overly verbose and filled with too many metaphors (“chloroform of cold,” “sting of snow,” “whoosh of wind” and “chandelier of snot” – all in the same paragraph), taken as a whole, the book is powerful and very enjoyable.




Discussion Questions from the Man Booker Prize Website:

1) In "TransAtlantic," Colum McCann uses the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, as a catalyst. In what ways does this act of daring and skill become metaphors for more everyday acts of bravery?


2) The first half of "TransAtlantic" features non-fictional stories focusing entirely on famous historical men. The second half is pure fiction focusing on a family of women. How does McCann bring the two sides of the novel together in the second half?


3) In what way do the women in the novel carry both its sadness and hope?


From the Iowa Center for the Book:

Check out these Articles. Links are at

§                     Dempsy, Beth. "The Evolving Book Group: New Formats Mean More Engagement," Library Journal, September 1, 2011.

§                     Lundquist, Molly. "How to Lead a Book Group Discussion - 7 Great Discussion Tips," July 14, 2009.