Book Review: Transatlantic, by Colum McCann

Transatlantic, by Colum McCann, is a contemporary literary masterpiece. In a year where most fiction has been ordinary, his
accomplishment seems that much greater.

McCann, l like other living Irish writers (Coim Toibin and Edna O’Brien come immediately to mind) has that true Irish gift for language, and for storytelling.  I think that he knows both of these things, and enjoys showcasing them in his novels. His earlier novel, Let the Great World Spin, was also replete with phenomenal language; O’Brien may be said to have revived the beauty of Irish narrative and the splendid visual sense often pronounced in writing by Irish men and women. Toibin, who is one of the greatest living writers in the world, wrote about Henry James in his first great novel, The Master, as if the narrator is James himself, giving the author a double opportunity to play with language to masterful effect). Molly Keane, aka M.J. Farrell, although an Englishwoman living in Ireland, also shares this great ability to spin a tale.

McCann uses, as his plot device, the crossings over the  Atlantic ocean of three different men, or groups of men, who are real historical figures: Brown and Alcock, two former RAF pilots, who make the first journey from Newfoundland to Ireland, carrying a load of mail (in a linen pouch, we note), creating what was once known as airmail.  The description of their flight, and the amount of it done by a combination of primitive instruments and human intuition, is fascinating, and we do feel as if we are in that plane with these two men.  A mother and daughter, writer/journalist and photographer, who watch the departure, after endless cancellations due to bad weather, will surface later in the novel as major characters.  The ways by which McCann casually drops people into the novel, only to have their stories erupt later and parallel the stories of the men with their missions, is nothing short of brilliant. The novel posits a nearly endless belief in the possibilities of reinventing one’s life, perhaps over and over, which is critical to any understanding of how America came to be settled.  But McCann also insists on keeping the old country, Ireland, entirely alive throughout the book; several of the characters actually end up going back there to live, which I find to be an enormously courageous idea for a contemporary novel; Toibin hints at the same in his astute novel Brooklyn, where a female character comes to Brooklyn from Ireland to seek a new life, but returns for a brief stay, and almost remains there.  That these ties remain strong is often overlooked in American fiction.

The second American to go to Ireland is the not-yet-freed slave, Frederick Douglass, who is brought to Ireland on a speaking tour to raise money to help end slavery in America.  The young Douglass is
brilliantly conceived by McCann: he is partly arrogant, but always slightly fearful, always watching his manners, but is a compelling speaker.  The Irish famine all over the countryside is kept hidden from Douglass, until accidents of scheduling and taking the wrong road on the highway (remember what happens in The Bonfire of the Vanities by taking the wrong expressway exit?) thrust Douglass and his host into the heart of the famine.  Doulgass meets the great orator O’Connell, who is attempting to garner basic rights for Catholics (we are in Belfast, and then Dublin, then Cork on this speaking tour).  Douglass has to grapple with whether to speak out on behalf of
starving Irishpersons, or “not biting the hand that feeds him”, as he is advised by his host Webb. He only meets Irish with money, those who are most like English gentleman in their living habits. A seventeen year old maid in Webb’s house will end up a major character in this novel, as she decides to run away to America to get away from the horrors of Ireland, claiming that Douglass motivated her to do so: she begins a line of women who came to America with nothing, and she, Lily Duggan, survives years of poverty, the death of a son in the Civil War, but eventually flourishes financially.

Suffice it to say that Lily’s daughter and granddaughter are the journalist and photographer in Newfoundland watching that first airplane flight across the Atlantic.

The third American to go to and from Ireland is Senator George Mitchell, whom President Clinton appointed to help garner a peace process between Irish and English.  Other coincidences of plot will occur during his visits, too, as McCann build this great novel,
interweaving the famous and the not famous, raising issues as compelling as whether American slavery was worse than an Irish famine (when food was available everywhere for those with money, like his hosts).  In choosing to create a line of strong and talented women as the woof of his tapestry, McCann allows the novel to traduce along the lines of what would become the rudimentaries of the women’s movement,
and show us how women were treated in the new land–often better than in Ireland, but a controlled chaos underlies everything, and so does Lady Luck.

No grand epiphanies will arise, no great meetings between the famous and the new immigrant; their paths will cross, which is partly what makes this novel so very moving. Jo Baker writes in this same way in her grand novel, The Undertow, published a few years ago, wherein random objects drift in and out of generations, their meanings perhaps more important to us as readers than to the characters whose lives they connect.

Yet McCann’s writing is very controlled, in spite of his gracious language and brilliant plot. He knows how badly an Irish drunk can bore his friends at the neighborhood pub, so he keeps his writing calm, yet he has created a novel of incredible magnificence, one that’s moving and often vindicating.  The last female of the line beginning with Lily is the last narrator, and she has fallen on very hard times:  McCann is very aware of these cycles in families, from the first immigrant, the one who may make well of him or herself, to the third generation–that rags to riches to rags idea underlies the novel.

McCann manages to include the sweep of history, of the immigrant and the historical personnage, in one novel, and he does it with such power and force that the reader is occasionally left breathless at the ability of the human spirit to survive, and sometimes to flourish.

—Daniel Brown

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