For Emily Ehrlich, there is the consoling “fascination with the swerve of the world.” For her daughter, Lottie, the “grand disorder of things” makes a fool of most plans. Lottie’s own child, Hannah, decides in the end that she must admire the world simply “for not ending on us.”
Characters in TransAtlantic, the eighth work of fiction by Irish novelist Colum McCann, are inclined to meditate on their lives. With this new book, a worthy successor to 2009’s acclaimed Let the Great World Spin, the post-9/11 sensation of danger and free fall has been supplanted by the steadier historic rhythm of Atlantic crossings, and the interplay of Old World with New that has defined generations along both shores.
A masterful scene writer, McCann opens with typical flourish. “It was a modified bomber,” he writes. “A Vickers Vimy. All wood and linen and wire.” It is 1919, and pilots John Alcock and Teddy Brown are determined to be the first to traverse the ocean non-stop by air. A successful crossing will mark a “new moment, raw, dynamic, warless.” The departure point is a field outside St. John’s, and the war veterans are residing at the nearby Cochrane Hotel. Among fellow residents are the unconventional mother-daughter journalist team of Emily and Lottie Ehrlich.
On the eve of departure, the teenage Lottie presses a letter upon Brown, for delivery to an address in the city of Cork. Then the men are up into the sky, through the clouds, and finally touching down in a beautiful country, although “a bit savage on a man all the same.” That country is Ireland, then in the grips of one of its frequent Troubles. With typical audacity, McCann next shifts the narrative back eight decades. We are still on the island, only now it is a British colony at the outset of a catastrophe.
But instead of the expected emigration narrative, the novel tracks the 1845 visit of Frederick Douglass to the blighted isle. The escaped slave and reformer has recently published his famous autobiography. He is a star author on a fundraising book tour, and can’t help feeling liberated just by being outside the brutal America he is shortly about to help transform.
Douglass meets Daniel O’Connell, the “great liberator” who will perish long before Ireland is finally able to liberate most of itself from colonial rule. The young African American also witnesses the unfolding misery of the “great hunger,” as the Irish potato famine was later known, then settling into its first of several annihilating winters.
In Dublin, Douglass has fleeting contact with a young maid who does immigrate to the United States. Her name is Lily Duggan, and she is the familial connective tissue that allows TransAtlantic to move through time with the ease, almost, of a Vickers Vimy through cloud. The novel ends, many crossings later, in 2011, with Lily’s great-granddaughter stranded outside Belfast. Though she has survived the latest Troubles, Hannah’s tribulations follow her into old age.
With so much ground so quickly covered, and so many flights of storytelling daring, TransAtlantic courts its own variety of disaster. Two-thirds of the narratives are brilliantly piloted. But a couple falter, most notably a decorous attempt at rendering dramatic the 1998 Good Friday peace accord that officially ended those recent Troubles.
McCann’s celebrated prose style can also be intrusive. He favours pure visual detailing, with paragraphs composed of little more than lists of observed things. While this generally works to good effect, passages of rote description sometimes cause the eye to scuttle down the page searching for the exact right note.
But the novel soars on the wing of its intelligence and humanity. McCann, who has now lived more than half his life in the United States, may be mid-Atlantic in literary disposition. Though attuned to dark Irish wit and philosophical shade, his fiction more and more embraces American expansiveness, the sense of a great, sunny project perpetually under way. He certainly feels all this history and motion – or better, history-in-motion – in his writerly bones. Between tiny Ireland and vast North America is actually scant space – our stories have long been entwined.
TransAtlantic may be most moving as a force of connection between lives lived inside that history-in-motion. It makes a passionate argument for fiction’s capacity to refute the feeling of disorder by demonstrating, in effect, how all individual journeys form part of the world’s astonishing spin and swerve.
Charles Foran is the author of 10 books, including Mordecai: The Life and Times.