Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Man Booker 2014 long list announced

The 13 novels long listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize were announced today and as always there were mixed reactions to the selection.

Many of the UK newspapers like the Daily Telegraph reflected on the number of novels by American authors who wouldn't have been eligible until the rule change for this year's prize.  Some commented also on the paucity of female authors (three out of the 13 titles).

Were there any surprises? The inclusion of Joy Ann Fowler, best known for the best selling Jane Austen Book Club  raised a few eyebrows as did David Nicholls's listing. None of the commentators said so specifically but reading between the lines the feeling was that these were rather 'light' to be considered for a premier book prize.

Inevitably there were comments on who had not been included - many of the big names were missing in fact. No Dave Eggers, no Ian McEwan, no Will Self and no Martin Amis. But of course the big surprise as The Independent, commented, was the absence from the list of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. She had been considered a cert for the long list having won the Pullitzer Prize with the novel in April.

Unless I was misreading the various articles, I didn't detect a lot of enthusiasm for this year's listing. No-one actually said it was a dull list but I didn't see any great buzz either. What people found disappointing was the shortage of representation by writers from Commonwealth countries which we have grown to see as a key feature of the Man Booker prize in the past. Only one Commonwealth writer actually made it to the list - the Narrow Road to the Deep North by the Australian writer Richard Flanagan. As Rebecca Jones, the BBC arts correspondent commented: "there are no Indian or African authors and that will raise eyebrows among those who feared writers from some Commonwealth countries might get squeezed out by the new rules."

What do you think of the list? Care to take a bet on which will win eventually?

The Longlist

Joshua Ferris
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
American
Richard Flanagan
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Australian
Karen Joy Fowler
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
American
Siri Hustvedt
The Blazing World
American
Howard Jacobson
J
British
Paul Kingsnorth
The Wake
British
David Mitchell
The Bone Clocks
British
Neel Mukherjee
The Lives of Others
British
David Nicholls
Us
British
Joseph O'Neill
The Dog
Irish/American
Richard Powers
Orfeo
American
Ali Smith
How to be Both
British
Niall Williams
History of the Rain
Irish




Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton - 2013 winner

When Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries was declared the winner of the 2013 Man Booker prize, almost every article and review drew attention to  the fact it was the longest novel ever awarded the prize and Catton the youngest ever winner. Much was made too of the genre affinity between Catton's  work and that master of the sensation novel, Wilkie Collins. Most reviewers seemed to agree with the Booker judges who called it “extraordinary, luminous, vast,”. The only dissenting voices came from the panel convened by one of the UK tv channels the night before the award who admired Catton's technical virtuosity but didn't feel it was the best book of the year, and David Sexton in The London Evening Standard who argued that a stunning feat of construction didn't necessarily equate to a great book.

Having now read this 832-page tome, I find myself more in David Sexton's camp than that of the Booker judges.

That isn't to say I didn't enjoy the book. I did.  Catton really knows how to tell a good story (but then she'd have to be good at this in order to keep people engaged through such a lengthy book).  Her plot is intricately crafted and she manages the multiple story lines deftly, making you want to keep turning the page to find out what happens next in this tale of death, deception and doomed love set in New Zealand during the time of the gold rush.

The book opens on a stormy night as the young Scottish lawyer Walter Moody,  lands on the shores of Hokitika, a town hurriedly constructed to service prospectors seeking to make their fortune in the surrounding hills and rivers. Shaken by an incident on the boat he goes into the first hotel he comes across, badly in need of a restorative drink and a bed for the night. He finds himself in a room of 12 men who slowly begin to reveal their unease about some strange recent events in the town involving a whore, a dead hermit and a missing fortune. Together these 12 luminaries set about trying to get to the bottom of these events by piecing together the knowledge each of them holds. Although they are not constituted as a jury they do weigh up the evidence from each man's version of events and make judgements about some of the people involved.

Catton made much of the fact that she structured her novel on astrological movements, using a software programme to help her pinpoint the exact positioning of the stars corresponding with events in the book. Each chapter begins with an astrological chart indicating which characters are in ascendancy on the date in question. I tried to follow this but couldn't see much beyond the fact the chart indicated which characters would be the focal point of the chapter. It felt like an artifice that didn't add much to our understanding of the story.

Initially the story is told in the form of a nested narrative where the 12 men tell their stories to Moody, in the hope he can make sense of their complex and multifaceted tales. This moves to straight forward narration of specific events but then at the end Catton loops right back to the beginning with some short chapters (some just two or three paragraphs long) which reveal the backstory and fill in the missing elements.  Along the way we get plenty of melodramatic episodes with a shipwreck, a murder trial and a seance.

All the elements are there for a darn good read. And yet, for all its technical prowess, there was something missing from this book. It was difficult at first to pin down what that missing element was but eventually it dawned on me that what I was lacking was any sense in which the novel illuminated the human condition. Outside the plot there wasn't much else of substance, all was really smoke and mirrors and the characters just faded out rather than came more sharply into view the more we heard them speak. There was little that caused me to pause and reflect, in short there was little evidence of the emotional or philosophical weight that I expect from a Booker prize winner.

And that's really my issue.  The Luminaries IS a really enjoyable, well crafted novel and is one of the best of its kind I have read in many years. But it's not up to the gold standard that the Booker should represent. How the judges chose this over Jim Crace's Harvest is just baffling.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Unexploded by Alison Macleod - 2013 Longlist


Eight months after Britain declares war on German, the people of Brighton anxiously prepare for a rumoured Nazi invasion. The town's piers are dismantled and barbed wire goes up on the beach. Soon vegetable seedlings will replace the flower displays in the parks and the lights of the fun fair will be dimmed. Already the racecourse has been transformed into an internment camp for whose people deemed to be 'suspicious'.  such as Otto Gottlieb, a German-Jewish artist whose work featured in the Nazi exhibition of "degenerate art".

In the Beaumont household, the preparations ignite underlying tensions. Geoffrey Beaumont is a banker charged with a secret mission to secure the future of the country's currency by removing it to an undisclosed location, leaving his wife Evelyn and eight year old son alone to face the invaders. The only preparations he makes on their behalf involve a stack of cash and an envelope containing two cyanide pills buried  in the garden, a contingency plan that in Evelyn's eyes, amounts to a betrayal. The resulting tension between them escalates when Evelyn takes more than a close interest in Otto Gottleib and questions the treatment of the internees at the camp.

It's easy to see why Unexploded was long-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Macleod delivers a very persuadable sense of the period, rich in detail and atmosphere. Even though so much has been written about the lives of ordinary people at this point in Britain's history; the anxiety of an unknown enemy, the constant rumours, the day to day trials of food shortages, the narrative often has a fresh feel.  In one extended passage she describes how it would feel to be on the receiving end of a bomb attack.
You are lifted from your bed even before you hear the blast..... You wake, unable to understand why heaps of gravel and brick dust are being shovelled over you at speed. You stumble outside for air, but even here the day is thick with dust, soot and - you can't make sense of it - a blizzard of feathers.
The immediacy of the present-tense approach coupled with her use of imagery made this one of the most memorable passages in the book for me.

I also enjoyed her characterisation of the Beaumont's son Phillip. As an only child his loneliness leads him to become friends with boys who would not be out of place in Lord of the Flies, to hide in corners listening illicitly to the radio, and to betrayal. Where the adults are simply frightened by the prospect of Hitler's arrival, Philip's reaction is more complex. It starts as a game, an amusing diversion, but then things happen that although he doesn't comprehend fully, he still recognises as disturbing and wrong.

His story is suggestive of a theme in the novel about the way the war acts as a catalyst, igniting elements that have until now lain idle such as the incompatibility between Evelyn and her husband and the anti-Semitic attitudes held by sections of the British population. In essence this is a novel that shows a society at a turning point:
Change was creeping under the door and through the windows of their home, persistent as gas … It was gathering over the house in spite of the purity of the day's rinsed blue sky. It was spiralling down the flue. At night as they slept, it would settle over their hearts.
A good story; well-written prose; lots of simmering tension, strong characterisation and meticulous attention to detail: it would be hard to find much about this book not to enjoy.

EndNotes
Unexploded was published by Hamish Hamilton in 2013.
Alison MacLeod is a professor of contemporary fiction at the University of Chichester in the UK. Raised in Canada she has lived in England since the 1980s. This is her  third novel.

This review is crossposted from BookerTalk.com

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, by Eve Harris - 2013 Longlist

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, by Eve Harris. Published by Black Cat Press 2014.

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman came out in Great Britain last year and was longlisted for last year's Booker Prize. Don't worry though- this is no stuffy "literary" book, although it is well-written, delightful and addictive reading.

Set in the present-day London neighborhood of Golders Green amid its Orthodox Jewish community, the story centers on a 19-year-old young woman named Chani who is about to get married to Baruch, a 20-year-old she barely knows.  As the book opens she's preparing for the nuptials- getting dressed, getting nervous, and he's doing the same. The opening pages capture their anxiety as they shoulder tradition, the expectations of their families and their own innocence, and author Eve Harris conjures this mood so beautifully that these first few pages are what stay most in my mind.

From here Harris shifts perspective to the Rebbetzin, whose husband is the lead rabbi of this particular community. By extension she herself is an important community leader; women come to her for advice and it falls to her to take young Chani to the mikvah, or ritual bath, before her wedding day because Chani's mother is busy with her large brood (Chani is one of eleven children). But the Rebbetzin is deeply conflicted, having grown up secular and then come to Orthodoxy as a young woman when her then-boyfriend committed to a traditional Jewish life. The Rebbetzin has played her role well, admirably even, but now, in midlife and after suffering a traumatic miscarriage, she isn't so sure anymore. Harris takes us through her life's story and into her future.

We get to know Chani and Baruch's families, and see how they interact. Baruch spies Chani at a party and asks to meet her; his mother, a wealthy social-climber, isn't happy that a poor girl has attracted her precious son's attention and schemes to undermine the blossoming relationship. Chani, for her part, isn't sure she even likes Baruch but she knows she has to get married and he seems nice enough so she goes along with it. Ironically it's Baruch's mother's resistance that gets Chani to dig in her heels.

I'm telling you a lot about what happens, so I'll stop. The book isn't perfect; some of the conversations struck me as unrealistic but overall I think The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is a charming and absorbing novel with great characters and a winning couple at its center. I don't think it comes down as very negative about Orthodox life though there are characters who find frustration as their lot. There are also those who will find a way to make it work. The key to happiness, Harris seems to say, is rational balance and finding a partner with whom you can build happiness and satisfaction. Conflict only brings alienation. The book is very heavy on the details of Orthodox ritual and is clear and accessible enough to be a good read for someone interested in learning about that. If you're new to the subject I hope you won't be put off and miss out on this great read.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Skios by Michael Frayn - 2012 Longlist

Skios, by Michael Frayn. Published 2013 by Picador.

So, what got my attention about Skios was two things. First, it was longlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. Second, its author wrote the very silly play "Noises Off."

Skios, by Michael Frayn. Published in the US 2013 by Picador. Longlisted in 2012.

So, what got my attention about Skios was two things. First, it was longlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. Second, its author wrote the very silly play "Noises Off."

This is a very silly book.

The plot hangs on a thin premise that some readers won't be able to buy into. Stuffy academic Dr. Norman Wilfred is making his way to the private Greek island of Skios for an international jet-setter's weekend conference. His is to be the keynote address and his presence is a big draw for the wealthy donors to an NGO. He's an older guy, kind of set in his ways and whose charisma owes more to habit than to actual charm. Enter Oliver Fox, an English playboy. Oliver Fox and Wilfred Owen, through circumstances I won't go into, end up with their identities switched. And then the fun really begins.

Stuck in the middle is hapless Nikki Hook, in charge of organizing the weekend. She is a bundle of nerves and anxiety and nearly becomes unhinged as events take their course. Other characters have significant roles to play but basically the book comes down to waiting to see what's going to happen when the ruse is finally up.

All I can say is, if you can put your brain on hold and just go along for the ride, Skios is a fun book. It's definitely a beach book- it reads fast and it's got an undeniable air of frivolity. Some reviewers think it asks deep questions about the meaning of identity; I don't know about that. It's also a great book to read this winter if you live in New England- you'll be feeling that Greek sunshine coming right through the page.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala - 1975 winner


I opened Heat and Dust hoping that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's  1975 Man Booker Prize winning novel would provide a fresh take on a theme explored by Paul Scott in The Jewel in the Crown (the first  book in his Raj Quartet series) and of course that classic of the cultural divide; E M Forster's A Passage to India.
In many of the tributes written about Jhabvala on her death in April 2013, she was described as a "cold-eyed observer of people and places" and a writer whose status as a non-native inhabitant meant she could view the country with unemotional detachment.
Detached and unemotional are indeed good descriptions for this tale of the cultural divide between colonisers and the natives they govern and of those who try to break free from conventions and restrictions.
The story is that of an un-named woman who travels to India in an attempt to unravel the mystery of her step grandmother Olivia during the rule of the British in the 1920s.  She deciphers the story mainly from letters Olivia wrote to her sister and by visiting places where her grandmother lived.  Gradually we learn that Olivia's story is one of disgrace and scandal Feeling smothered by the restrictions of the British way of life in India, she fell under the spell of a Nawab (an Indian prince) for whom she abandoned her husband . Fifty years later her grand-daughter, though more independent and less naive than Olivia similarly becomes seduced by India. She too crosses the divide.
The novel has none of the tension found in Scott's novel nor does it have the  subtleties of A Passage to India. It doesn't so much end as simply peters out inconclusively leaving me feeling decidedly underwhelmed. It's not what I expect of a prize-winning novel.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald - 1978 shortlist

Christmas Time is a lovely time to muse about which books you'd like to read next year and to ...well...read!  

Most of the time, I have a great stack of books beside the bed, half of which I can't remember how they got there or why I ordered them.  This time I am determined to record how I got to this book.  I was idly reading The Guardian Weekly Vol. 190 No 2 &3 and its Books of the Year article. The enclosed recommendations had a devastating effect on my PayPal account and library card.  Several authors (John Lanchester, Penelope Lively and Hilary Mantel) all recommended Hermione Lee's Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. In his column,   John Lanchester describes her novels as "funny/sharp".  Thanks John.  I think you have put me on to a very good thing.

Source 
Like John, I thought I'd better read some of Fitzgerald's work before I read her biography. I'm deeply ashamed to say that I had never heard of her and was only slightly consoled that my other half hadn't heard of her either. Whilst the library service where I work had several of her novels, I was impatient for a good read and so opted for an e-version of The Bookshop through my other city council libraryservice.  

There are pluses and minuses about e-versions.  Negatives are that they don't come with yummy covers - well not on my Kobo touch anyway.  I am a firm believer in judging a book as much by its cover as anything else.  Positives are that you can get a book (usually) when you are in a hurry.  Whilst you can make notes, I still find a tree book better when it comes to reflecting on a book and its merits.  Maybe it comes down to the user - I try to make notes or highlight text that appealed to me but I don't seem to do it very well.  I find flicking through a real book much easier.  

Anyway, enough about me and my incompetence.  Let's talk about the book.  

It's only 107 pages long (e-version; the tree version is about 175 pages).  Can you believe it?  Of late most prize-winning books seem to have to be absolute door-stoppers.  This tends to make me a bit cross and feel defeated before I've even begun.  My first Fitzgerald was looking even better than I'd hoped.  

At first when I was reading The Bookshop I tended to compare its author with Barbara Pym - and not as favourably.  I found the writing a bit jumpy and disjointed.  I wondered if I was missing some knowledge of dialect or whether there were some typos or glitches with the e-version.  I longed to compare the e-version with a ridgy-didge tree book. Has anyone else noticed this?  Here's an example of what I am referring to in some dialogue:

"Why should you mind about that, my dear?"

"They say she can't hold on to it, do they'll have her up.  That'll mean County Court."

I've highlighted the bit I don't understand.  Maybe it's Suffolk idiom.  If you know, please edu-macate or enlighten me.  

Then I started to smile a bit and think "Hmm...this is a damn queer book.  Is it a ghost story?"  


Source Flickr

Well no it's not.  Well there is a ghost - but it isn't the main focus of the book.  The "rapper" as they call it, is quite entertaining for a colonial like me living in a land where there don't seem so many ghosts on hand. It was from about the poltergeist scene onward that I relaxed and settled into the Fitzgerald groove.  As Edmund Gordon says:

"Fitzgerald's greatness doesn't announce itself within a few sentences, but creeps up on you slowly, over the course of a novel." 

Anyway I don't really want to tell you much more about The Bookshop, other than I really really liked it.  

Trevor's review tells you what it's about.  I just want to second his review and say that the writing made me laugh out loud, gasp and say "Oh no!" on several occasions.  

There is some exquisite writing.  I find it hard to articulate why it is so great.  Fitzgerald writes as much about what's not there as well as what is there.  I liked this passage the best (when aged Mr Brundish takes the unprecedented step of emerging from his abode to come to the heroine Florence Green's defence).

"Without attempting to disguise his weakness, without pretending to stop for a few minutes to admire the proportions of the hall, he clung to the banisters, struggling for breath.  His stick fell with a clatter to the shining floor."


I wanted to say in conclusion that I liked how many of Fitzgerald's characters didn't mince words but just said it like it was.  Maybe that can be said of Fitzgerald too.  It is perhaps the economy or thrift of words that I loved most about her writing.  Thrift is an attribute for which I am not famous, but which I deeply admire in others.  In support of this self-assessment, I am now off to purchase my own tree version.  Whilst I would like, in deference to thrift and booksellers to purchase locally, I confess to being rather taken with the Everyman omnibus which features a rather lovely cover portrait of the author.  It would, after all, be a tribute to Florence Green's fondness for Everyman editions.....



Sunday, December 15, 2013

Harvest by Jim Crace - 2013 shortlist

…. rain or shine, the earth abides, the land endures, the soil will persevere for ever and a day.

That quote from Jim Crace's latest book Harvest might lull you into thinking this novel is a homage to the timeless quality oHarvestf the countryside.  It isn't any more than it is a sentimentalised evocation of England's green and pleasant land or even a tribute to the symbiotic relationship between the land and the generations of dwellers for whom the land has provided a means of existence.
Instead it's a deeply thoughtful story that examines the human consequences of a rupture in a  traditional way of life resulting from a pursuit of "Profit, Progress, Enterprise".
The setting is a small rural English community known simply as The Village where life follows the ceaseless cycle of sowing,planting and harvesting  required to eke out even the barest of subsistence living.  The Village exists in a bubble where the regular routine is seldom troubled by anything beyond the ancient oaks and dry stone walls that mark the reaches of the settlement.
Even if the inhabitants are not fully aware of it, this is a way of life that is threatened. As the novel opens, smoke wisps are still rising from the ruins of a stable at the local manor house,  – the result, the villagers believe, of an arson attack. Barely have they recovered from that shock when there is a further signal of a disturbing nature.  New comers have arrived, taking advantage of a law that gives them the right to settle within the village's boundaries as long as they can put up a rudimentary shelter and send up smoke before they are caught. The events become conflated in the minds of the villagers fearful that the year's disastrous harvest will have to stretch even further.
What the villagers do not know is that there is an more profound change on the horizon. The manor lord Master Kent has always taken a paternalistic attitude towards his tenant but now his claim to the estate has been revoked.  The new lord intends to enclose all the fields, turning them from crop growing to the more profitable venture of sheep grazing. The villagers who have tended these fields for generations will be forced out when the land they farm in common is enclosed for sheep. When he arrives to take stock of his new estate complete with his entourage of strong- arm men, aggression, violence and death soon ensue.
Our guide to these events is one Walter Thirsk, an old boyhood friend and former servant of Master Kent. Although he's lived in the village for a dozen years or so after marrying one of the villagers, they still view him as an outsider. Walter has a deep and abiding affection for the fields and oaks around him, viewing them as a form of Eden.  But he has no illusions about the way nature can be inflexible and stern, presenting hardships for those who make their living from the land. He is a realist who knows that the world around him is changing and that it will be to the detriment of his community. For all the new master's talk of a new order "to all our advantages" and the prospect of a life without hard work and where uncertain grain harvests will be swapped for the predictability of sheep farming,  The effects of enclosure for him will be  "to throw a halter around our neck."
Walter sees the economic and human consequences of enclosure. But he also sees it as a rupture of man's connection to his past.
We're used to looking out and seeing what's preceded us, and what will also outlive us. ... Those woods that linked us to eternity will be removed... That grizzled oak which we believe is so old it must have come from Eden to our fields will be felled and routed out. That drystone wall put up before our grandpa's time .... will be brought down entirely ....until there is no trace of it. We'll look across these fields and say, 'This land is so much younger than ourselves."
Crace relates this story in language that at times borders on poetry. There is a close attention to detail - we get many names of hedgerow plants for example which might enable some experts to actually pinpoint the location or even the era. And some wonderfully evocative phrases such as the Turd and Turf,  an area which does double duty as both latrine and burial ground.  Crace has a real feel for the landscape - its shape, its sounds and its smells  - but even more powerfully rendered his is appreciation for man's relation to the land.
My Verdict
A superb novel, one of the best I've read all year. Immediately on finishing it, I wanted to start it all over again. I read it before the judges announced it was not the winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize. There's no justice in this world!

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki - 2013 shortlist

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. Published 2013 by Viking Adult.

I picked up A Tale for the Time Being after it got a starred review in Kirkus; I tend to do well with starred Kirkus books, and I liked this one right from the opening lines. These lines come from a diary written by a teenage girl, Nao, who grew up in America but has moved back to Japan with her mother and father. Her father is unemployed and steeped in shame and depression; her mother is trying to support the family, and Nao is just trying to survive. When the book opens Nao's tone is cheeky and funny, but her story goes to some very dark places, and very quickly.

Coupled with Nao is a writer named Ruth, living on a Canadian island with her boyfriend Oliver. They share a quiet life, but grief and anxiety lie beneath the surface. Ruth's mother has recently died, and when she finds Nao's diary washed up on the beach, she becomes more and more concerned about the sixteen year-old's fate.

She has reason to be concerned. The Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred rather near to where Ruth thinks the diary came from, and Nao becomes more depressed and suicidal as the narrative of the diary wears on. There are some interesting things going on in this book. Ruth reads Nao's diary as if it will contain the end to Nao's story, but if Nao is alive or dead at the moment Ruth is reading, the answer won't lie within the diary's pages. Ruth has to negotiate her relationship with the text, to understand what she can and can't learn from it, the same way we always have to understand our position in relationship to what we're reading. In this way the book is really about the act of reading itself, about how to understand what we're reading and to understand that there are things we can never know.

Nao's driving motivation for writing the diary isn't so much to recount her own story but to tell the story of her great-grandmother, an elderly Buddhist nun whose son died as kamikaze pilot at the beginning of World War 2. This story is one she comes upon by accident, much the same way Ruth discovers Nao's. Like Ruth, Nao is left to make sense of the story by herself, with only the most slender of clues. In this way the book closes in on itself a little, like a nesting doll, stories within stories.

A Tale for the Time Being was short-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the fact that it lost to The Luminaries only makes me want to read that book because I need to know what made it better! Time Being is a quiet book that I didn't expect to receive recognition- it certainly wasn't hyped or promoted that I noticed- but I think it's a great book for the literary reader who has the time and stamina for a difficult, thoughtful and intricate book. It's not for every reader; it doesn't have much plot, and it's more about introspection than action. And it's long, too. But it's worth it, if you're up to it.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Transatlantic by Column McCann - 2013 Longlist


Colum McCann opened his award-winning novel Let the Great World Spin with a dramatic, real-world event  — Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the newly built Twin Towers of New York.  In similar vein he opens TransAtlantic with another astonishing feat — the first nonstop transatlantic flight by the British airmen Alcock and Brown shortly after the end of World War 1.

In both novels, these daring acts demonstrate man's relentless desire to challenge and push through the boundaries of what is possible. They also serve as narrative anchors for a McCann's multi-stranded narrative about individuals whose lives overlap and connect during some 150 years of American-Irish history.

McCann brings together three real-life stories: Alcock and Brown and their ground-breaking flight; a visit to to Ireland in 1845 by the antislavery activist Frederick Douglass and the diplomatic attempts by Senator George Mitchell to broker the 1998 Good Friday peace settlement in Northern Ireland.  The novel's final strand introduces four generations of women whose fictitious lives intersect with those of the real-life characters over the centuries. Via these multiple narratives we go back in time to an Ireland on the verge of famine and to the American Civil War and then come forwards to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the demise of the Celtic Tiger.

It's an ambitious approach structurally and thematically. McCann's story is essentially about the complex connections between two nations separated but yet united by the same stretch of water. Into this he weaves ideas about the way ordinary lives  are touched by great moments in history.

Given the scope and scale of his ambition, he could perhaps be forgiven a few misses. TransAtlantic begins on a strong note with the recreation of Alcock and Brown's flight through snow and fog aided only by some rudimentary navigation systems.
Three thousand feet above the sea. In the cloud their balance is shot to hell. No sense of up. No down. Two thousand five hundred. Two thousand. The slap of rain and wind in their faces. The machine shudders.  ... Their bodies are thrown back against the seats. What they need is a line of sky or sea. A visual. But there is nothing but thick, grey cloud... No horizon, no centre, no edge.
The next few sections sadly don't live up to that opening promise. The 1845 famine caused by the failure of the potato crop is sketched slimly while the chapters set during the American Civil War are dealt with so slightly they don't have much impact. For me the weakest strand came with the efforts to bring about some form of lasting settlement between the British government and the paramilitary forces in North Ireland.  Diplomacy by its nature doesn't lend itself that well to the dramatic but the portrayal of Senator George Mitchell sucks even more life from the narrative.  We get no strong insight into his character beyond the fact he is tired of the painfully slow progress of talks and would much rather be at home with his family instead of criss-crossing the ocean.

Nor are these middle sections helped by McCann's terse prose which often contains verbless sentences or one-sentence paragraphs where the words come forth like a machine gun.

You might be tempted during these sections to give up on the book.

I urge you to resist the temptation.

McCann has saved his best for the final chapters.

This is where he switches to the remaining female members of his fiction family.  The particular focus is on Hannah Carson, the great grand-daughter of a young maid who was so inspired by hearing Douglass talk of freedom and equality, that she crossed the Atlantic to make a new life for herself in America. Her descendants eventually returned to the motherland.

Now aged 72, Hannah lives in the family's tumbledown cottage on the shores of  a tidal lake with only her incontinent dog for company.  She feels not only the pressure from a bank that demands she sells so she can clear her overdraft, but also the weight of her country's history and its traumatic effect on her own family. It's quite the most powerful and moving part of the whole novel.

Originally posted at www.bookertalk.com