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The Courage To Cross An Ocean, Explored In 'TransAtlantic'

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The Courage To Cross An Ocean, Explored In 'TransAtlantic'

Book Reviews

The Courage To Cross An Ocean, Explored In 'TransAtlantic'

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TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

Colum McCann's last novel, "Let the Great World Spin," was hailed by both critics and readers. It went on to win the National Book Award in 2009. But reviewer Rosecrans Baldwin says McCann's newest novel, "TransAtlantic," is a bit of a mixed bag.

ROSECRANS BALDWIN: I'm going to bet you had no idea the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass went to Ireland in 1845 on what was basically a book tour. Or how about this? Almost 80 years after that, two airmen, Jack Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, crossed the Atlantic. It was the first time anyone had done it nonstop. It took them 16 hours, and they landed in an Irish bog. One more story - in the 1990s this time. Former Senator George J. Mitchell makes the journey across the water. He crosses back, and crosses again, all the while steering the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Now, these guys don't have much in common, except a continent, an ocean and some impossible odds. But enter novelist Colum McCann. He tosses all three into a book, adds a bunch of fiction, and suddenly, we've got a story. Unfortunately, the chapters vary not only in plot, but in substance. The part about the pilots is a gripping adventure.

Frederick Douglass' inner struggles, as he encounters Irish famine victims, are deep and touching. But the senator's chapter reads a bit like "The Dirge of the First-Class Flyer." What keeps the whole thing together, though, is McCann's writing. His sentences are just too surprising to look away.

I know what you're wondering now is how these stories come together. Books with this kind of braided narrative rarely tie into a satisfying knot. But by the end of "TransAtlantic," you'll realize that's the wrong metaphor. This book isn't a braid; it's a body of water. And the chapters aren't stands; they're waves, rolling, rebuilding, crashing into each other. And like waves, ultimately returning to a single source. In this case, it's the determination it takes to cross an ocean, metaphorically or not.

VIGELAND: The book is "TransAtlantic" by Colum McCann. It was reviewed by Rosecrans Baldwin. His latest book is called "Paris, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VIGELAND: This is NPR News.

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