In his previous novel, 2009’s LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, Colum McCann used Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between New York’s Twin Towers in 1974 as entry into a post-9/11 story of intersecting lives and the struggle to make sense of a violently altered world. The brilliance of that book lay in McCann’s ability to mix real and imagined events and to shift seamlessly among the perspectives of a dozen protagonists. He does the same in his new work, TRANSATLANTIC, an audacious follow-up that spans 170 years and two continents.
The novel begins in Newfoundland in 1919. Lord Northcliffe, the editor of London’s Daily Mail, has offered £10,000 to the first person to successfully complete a flight across the Atlantic. Among the many who vie for the prize are the Englishman John Alcock and Scotland’s Arthur Brown, aviators who were prisoners of war during World War I. In an attempt to “tak[e] the war out of the plane,” they assemble a modified version of a Vickers Vimy bomber and plan to fly it from Canada to Ireland.
"McCann achieves his effects with techniques that will be familiar to readers of his past work. Much of the prose consists of short sentence fragments, which he mixes with descriptions that are as lovely as they are precise."
Before the aviators take off, Lottie Ehrlich, a 17-year-old photographer, gives Brown a letter, written by her journalist mother, Emily, and asks him to deliver it when he gets to Europe. In a brilliant set piece, we see Alcock and Brown high above the Atlantic in their plane. With a staccato narrative style and the gradual introduction of key pieces of information --- the propeller on the wireless generator spins away, then a chunk of exhaust pipe breaks off --- McCann builds tension beautifully as the plane heads toward a bog in County Galway.
The novel then shifts to 1845, when 27-year-old Frederick Douglass is disembarking from the Cambria in Dublin to begin a speaking tour of Ireland. A driver takes him to the home of Richard Webb, Douglass’s Irish publisher. Among the many people Douglass meets during his stay is Daniel O’Connell, the Great Liberator who campaigned for Catholic emancipation. At a rally, O’Connell introduces Douglass as “the black O’Connell” before Douglass gives a fiery speech in which he proclaims, “The cause of humanity is one the world over.” One of the listeners influenced by Douglass’s words is Lily Duggan, Webb’s maid, who is among the many to immigrate to America as her country contends with the Irish potato famine that will eventually kill a million people.
Another jump in time and perspective: Now it’s 1998, and George Mitchell, the 64-year-old former Senate Majority Leader, makes his latest trip to Belfast in what will be the final days of negotiations to end the Troubles in Northern Ireland. His second wife, 25 years his junior, stays in their New York apartment with their infant son, Andrew. During Mitchell’s visit, he meets an elderly woman in a wheelchair who tells him that everyone is counting on him to help broker the peace. Not until the second half of the book do we learn how profoundly this woman’s life has been affected by the decades of violence. Mitchell spends much of his trip thinking about his wife and son, and about the many innocent children who have been killed as a result of the Troubles.
The real-life personages dominate the novel’s first half, but the women who are subordinate players in these chapters become the focus of the second half of TRANSATLANTIC. This is when the book becomes more obviously about parents and their children, not just George Mitchell and his son but four generations of women, including Emily and Lottie, who interact with these historical figures. The term “TransAtlantic” refers properly to voyages across the water, but it can also be applied to other challenging crossings: the search for diplomatic solutions, the struggle to reconcile ambition and family, the forsaking of religions and countries of origin.
McCann achieves his effects with techniques that will be familiar to readers of his past work. Much of the prose consists of short sentence fragments, which he mixes with descriptions that are as lovely as they are precise. Onlookers who watch Alcock and Brown assemble their plane “pinged the taut linen of the wings with their umbrellas.” British Airways attendants who greet George Mitchell have perfect English accents, “[a]s if serving all their vowels on a fine set of tongs.” If the device of using real people and real events occasionally feels contrived, McCann compensates with his vivid prose and bold vision.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on June 7, 2013