In his last novel, 2009 National Book Award winner Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann made a historical event — a 1974 tightrope walk between New York's Twin Towers — the center of a web of intersecting lives. He uses history again to frame his dazzling new novel, TransAtlantic, which arcs across a century and a half in Ireland and North America.
TransAtlantic is a joy to read simply for the brilliance of McCann's prose, but it also expertly weaves themes of war and politics, success and loss, flight and return into the lives of its thoroughly engaging characters.
The historical figures McCann brings to life are men: the American slave turned orator Frederick Douglass; British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown, who made the first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight in 1919; and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who brokered the 1998 Belfast Peace Agreement.
But the heart of his story lies with four generations of fictional women, beginning with a teenage Irish maid named Lily Duggan and continuing through the lives of her daughter Emily, granddaughter Lottie and great-granddaughter Hannah.
McCann (himself a native of Ireland and longtime U.S. resident) tells their tale not chronologically but in a series of loops across time, from 1845 to the present. The first chapter recounts Alcock and Brown's flight from Newfoundland to Galway in a Vickers Vimy, a World War I craft with an open cockpit, wings made of stretched linen and utterly primitive instruments. McCann's description of this heroic and foolhardy flight is heart-stoppingly vivid — I don't think I breathed for 10 pages or so —- complete with details like snow piling up around the men as they flew.
Covering their flight from Newfoundland is Lily's daughter, Emily Ehrlich, an independent-minded newspaper reporter. Her teenage daughter, Lottie, asks Brown to take aloft with him a letter her mother has written — a letter that will reappear throughout the novel.
The novel crosses back to Ireland and the 19th century to introduce Lily, who meets the young Douglass while he is on a speaking tour in Ireland.
It's a life-changing visit for Douglass, who writes to his wife, "On occasion I have to pause, astounded that I am not fugitive anymore. My mind unshackled. They cannot place me, or even imagine me, upon the auction block." But even he, raised a slave, is shocked and sickened by the grinding poverty he sees in Dublin.
So inspired by him is Lily that she sets out for America, her crossing in one of the infamous "coffin shops" an echo of the slave trade. Her life here is a dizzying whirl of comfort and happiness interrupted by appalling loss: "In America you could lose everything except the memory of your original name." She serves as a battlefront nurse during the Civil War because her only son has enlisted; she watches the wagons filled with the injured and dead roll in, never sure whether it would be worse to see him or not see him. Then she does, and thinks, "I expect your risen spirit is listening to me now. When you get up to sit with God or the devil you can curse them both for me."
Lily will have more children, prosper and grieve. Her granddaughter Lottie will reverse Lily's migration, marrying an Irishman and moving back across the Atlantic. Decades later she'll encounter Mitchell, for whom flight has become not a heroic feat but a necessity of diplomacy as he tries to end the Irish Troubles: "Almost two hundred flights over the past three years. One every three days. … He lives out his life in two bodies, two wardrobes, two rooms, two clocks."
Using Mitchell, who is still alive, as a character is a bold stroke for historical fiction, but McCann makes him entirely believable, as in his exasperation with the process and his recognition of the role women play in war: "Some days he wishes that he could empty the chambers of the men, fill the halls instead with women: the short sharp shock of three thousand two hundred mothers."
One of those thousands of mothers who have lost children to the war is Hannah, Lily's great-granddaughter, who is central to the book's final portion. Her family already gone, on the brink of losing everything else, she will arc once more to a kind of salvation, yet another echo of Lily's long-ago flight. As Hannah says, "We return to the lives of those who have gone before us, a perplexing mobius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.