In his new novel, TransAtlantic, Colum McCann proves once again why he is one of the most acclaimed authors of our time. Like the award-winning Let the Great World Spin, TransAtlantic explores the connections between people of different classes and ethnicities, but this time over centuries and between continents. McCann mixes actual historic events with the story of a singular Irish-American family. The interplay between the celebrated (who all happen to be men) and the ordinary (who all happen to be women) is one of the many strengths of this most notable book.
TransAtlantic begins with three momentous crossings. Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown, two WWI aviators, set course from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1919 on the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Almost 75 years earlier, Frederick Douglass makes his way to Dublin and Cork, seeking funding for the abolitionist movement. Jump to the end of the 20th century, and Senator George Mitchell is flying from New York to Belfast to broker the notoriously bitter Northern Ireland peace talks in what became known as the Good Friday Agreements of 1998.
McCann explores historical events through the lens of the everyday.
These iconic journeys are connected by a series of personal stories starting with Lily Duggan, a young maid in the Dublin home where Douglass is staying. His message of emancipation has a profound effect on her, and she immigrates to the United States. The novel follows her daughter and granddaughter to Canada and then back to Ireland, culminating in the story of Hannah Carson, the last of the Duggans, in the family cottage on the coast of Northern Ireland. The stories are tied together by a letter sent on that first transatlantic flight, though its re-appearance at the story’s denouement is somewhat anticlimactic.
McCann is most interested in the details behind the big stories and in the way historical events shape and transform thousands of smaller lives. Douglass’ pursuit of freedom inspires Lily’s departure from Ireland. Alcock and Brown transform a war machine into a mode of international travel. The faith both men hold in the nature of flight is echoed in Mitchell’s tireless work and the seeming paradox of achieving peace by preparing for war. These kinds of contradictions—holding multiple opposing truths or ideas—are also central to the novel.
TransAtlantic is a story of great profundity. Time, events and actions are interwoven in a gorgeous meditation on violence, the quest for peace and the balance between the two. McCann offers the reader new ways of seeing and thinking about historic events and their impact on the present. This is a novel to relish.