Colum McCann’s latest novel did well to live up to my raised expectations and has now become a symbol of a path on the journey of this blog itself. I was always keen to read McCann’s next novel, after the hype of Let the Great World Spin, which I enjoyed although I wouldn’t class it as one of my all-time favourites. However, TransAtlantic became a “must read” after I received a hardback copy in the post, in recognition of one of my reviews being profiled on The Guardian’s online book pages, where I occasionally post extracts of reviews and comment under the pseudonym RedBirdFlies. The review that was acknowledged, was Zadie Smith’s NW and you can read what the Guardian had to say about it here.
So thank you to The Guardian Books team for sending me a copy of TransAtlantic, a welcome surprise and wonderful to know that a few of these “word by words” have flown the page and landed elsewhere to an appreciative audience.
TransAtlantic is a hybrid novel (is that an oxymoron?), in which McCann takes real historical figures, all of whom made a transatlantic journey which subsequently had a bearing on the story of Ireland and re-imagines a part of their story, interspersing the narrative with fictional characters.
He starts with Alcock and Brown in 1919, who ditched their bomb carriers, modifying the Vickers Vimy by taking war out of flight and adding more fuel than had ever been strapped to an aircraft in their attempt to cross the Atlantic non-stop.
The names sounded familiar, but I didn’t know as I began to read who they were, so looked them up and was startled to see Alcock’s date of birth and then death, the same year in which he makes this attempt – are they going to make it I asked? And is it cheating to look up a historical figure in the midst of reading a novel? Brown dies many years later, so I settle back into reading, content they are going to make it. Until I read that Alcock couldn’t swim.
Their preparation and journey are captured by a journalist Emily Ehrlich and her photographer daughter Lottie, who reappear in later chapters, two women whose family have made the crossing many times, the first family member to do so Lily, inspired by meeting Frederick Douglass, who we meet in the second chapter. In a chance encounter with Brown, Lottie asks if he will carry a letter written by her mother to an address in Cork. A letter that survives this entire novel.
Frederick Douglass visits Ireland while in the throw of becoming a free man, he is spreading the word against slavery, a young abolitionist, a charismatic presence, in awe of how he is received, as an equal, yet disturbed by what he sees outside the warm, accepting rooms of his well-off hosts, the onset of famine in Ireland, people living in more dire conditions, than what he has left, though they are free. It is a humbling experience, as it is for anyone meeting those worse off than they, no matter how tragic one’s own circumstance.
“He thought he knew now what had brought him here – the chance to explore what it felt like to be free and captive at the same time. It was not something even the most aggrieved Irishman could understand. To be in bondage to everything, even the idea of one’s peace.”
A young maid, Lily Duggan is inspired by his presence to abandon her employ and take a ship to America, where she meets mixed fortune, her descendants equally inspired to search for new shores, leading them back full circle to that island of her birth Ireland. It is through the women characters that the threads of narrative are interwoven and connections are made across the years, witness to, or affected by the consequences of those significant events that the men of those first three chapters represent.
These characters might represent us, the population, those that stay in a country generation after generation, some harbouring seeds of revenge, and those who leave, immigrate, seeking utopia, hoping that there does exist, a place where men and women of any race, class, religion or persuasion have an equal chance at bettering their lives.
And as McCann himself says in the interview with Jeffrey Brown:
“Women, as we know, get the short shrift in history.
It’s been largely written and dictated by men, or at least men believe that we own it, and women have really been in those quieter moments at the edge of history. But, really, they’re the ones who are turning the cogs and the wheels and allowing things like the peace process to happen.”
There is something alluring in the novelist who takes on a historical figure and imagines their past, it can bring the past to life in a more animated way; in the present when the media delves into the personal life of an important political or scientific or literary figure, it is deemed an invasion of their privacy, the cult of the celebrity. When a novelist looks back and intertwines the narrative of their accomplishment and the context of their life, their loves, and their thoughts beyond the significant reason that they have become known, it makes them whole and they become characters that we might even relate to.
“I am partial, still, to the recklessness of the imagination. The tunnels of our loves connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again. We return to the lives of those who have gone before us, a perplexing Möbius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves.”
Whist many authors safely inhabit the lives of historical figures from a distance, many years or centuries after their death, dwelling in the safety of already published and authenticated research, McCann goes one step further by taking as his third character the US Senator, George Mitchell, effectively channeling his thoughts during the day that he journeys to Northern Ireland to broker the Good Friday Peace Agreement. Clearly, this was no mean feat, as the interview comments quoted attest, but he succeeds in creating the man behind the politician, without it seeming like an invasion of his privacy.
McCann’s prose style often reduces to the minimum, he sometimes dispenses with conventions of grammar, reducing his phrases to only the words that describe or evoke the scene or emotion and it is compelling reading. He doesn’t strip beauty from language; if anything he accentuates it by removing the accessories.
I don’t wish to make comparisons, but the only other writer whose prose has that kind of addictive effect on my reading is Cormac McCarthy. They don’t strum their words in the same way, but if they were musicians, they’d both be on my playlist. They possess talent worth dwelling within.
“It is one of their beauties, the Irish, the way they crush and expand the language all at once. How they mangle it and revere it. How they colour even their silences.”