TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann

Here is a beautiful 2013 novel. I use that word again. But it truly is. It also has an unusual structure, a story told across seven time zones, a back and forth structure that only a master author could bring together and make work. But this is also, and not least, a story of Ireland across those eras.

The first time zone is 1919, when we join Adcock and Brown in a beautifully evoked flight, as they become the first pilots to cross the Atlantic non-stop. And in an insignificant moment before take-off, Lottie, a young female photographer hands the pilots a letter written by her mother Emily. In the second time zone, 1845, Frederick Douglass visits Dublin  to press the cause of abolition that has brought him to Ireland. While there, he catches the eye of a fictional young maid named Lily, but the entire emphasis is on a deeply-felt portrait of Douglass.

In the third time zone, 1998, we jump ahead to follow former Senator George Mitchell as he negotiates peace between the Protestant and Catholic factions in Northern Ireland. This Good Friday section seems least connected to the remainder of the novel, as effective at it is, and as understanding as it is of Mitchell the person. It does not enter the negotiations themselves, but its portrayal of Mitchell establishes the presence of the modern Troubles. These strong portraits of Mitchell and Douglass help provide the historic verisimilitude against which the fictional characters are created.

The next section opens in 1863, when that maid Lily we met in 1845 is now a nurse in the Civil War, and has volunteered to serve at the front in order to find her illegitimate son who has enlisted. We follow her as she next marries for security and has five sons and one daughter, Emily. With Emily, she witnesses another appearance of Douglass, this time in St. Louis, a now elderly Douglass who is still preaching the rights of Negroes. The next time zone is 1929, when Emily and her own illegitimate daughter Lottie are traveling across the Atlantic to interview Brown on the tenth anniversary of his flight. Emily is now a journalist, and with her photographer daughter Lottie is based in Newfoundland—where ten years earlier they had asked Adcock and Brown to bring that private letter with them to Ireland, a letter in which Emily thanks an Irish family for their long-ago kindness toward her mother Lily.

Now the focus on crossing the Atlantic has been replaced by a focus on the female descendents of Lily, who are Emily, Lottie, and Hannah. In Ireland on their 1929 trip, Emily receives from Brown the letter Lottie gave to him before his flight; he had forgotten to post it. And Lottie, who has joined her mother on the trip as her photographer, now settles in Ireland, for she falls in love and marries the driver her mother had hired to find Brown. Next, we move to 1978, to Lottie’s subsequent life, especially her problems with her son Tomas. Finally, the last chapter, in 2011, also in Ireland, deals with Lottie’s daughter Hannah and the misplaced and still unopened letter.

Overall, this is the story of a family that begins in poverty and ends in poverty. A story that some might suggest mirrors the rise and fall of Ireland’s own economy. But it is a beautiful novel, as I have written. And one major reason that it is beautiful is the author’s style. It is a style of short sentences, frequently without a verb, and of clear limpid images. It is a pleasure to read, often with one image built upon another to create an entire scene.

And those moments beautifully bring to life a variety of scenes: the initial flight across the Atlantic, the battlefront of the Civil War, the hardscrabble life of an ice factory and then a newspaper office. But it also brings to life an emotional content: the sensitivity of Mitchell outside the negotiating rooms, the fragility of Emily as she encounters a man’s world, the aging of Lily and her female progeny, the texture of the Irish countryside and seaside, and the gentility, the warmth of the Irish people.

And beyond that, one marvels at the sweep of this novel, across the Atlantic, across cultures, and across more than a century. It deals with violence and protest, with memory and emotion, with historic figures alive on the page and fictional characters whom they encounter and with whom we identify, and, not least, with insignificant fictional women and the march of real history.

The weaknesses of the book are, first, the Mitchell section—as well as it is done, as understanding as it is of Mitchell’s blend of frustration and perseverance. And, second, it is the choice of the first-person narration in the final section, which is Hannah’s story as she struggles to save the family property on the edge of the sea. The switch to the first person is never explained, and we do not enter deep enough into her character to support it. We grasp her financial concerns, her doubts, and her sense of impending loss, but we do not explore her concern for her own future. The author is not interested in the psychology of soul-searching.

To sum up, while this novel encapsulates a full circle of poverty, it also offers a full circle of resilience. Which on another level is a full circle from faith in one’s future to hope in one’s survival There is even a full circle of violence, from that against an entire race, to that against another religion, to that against a single individual.

The final sentence reads: “We have to admire the world for not ending on us.” This is thought by Hannah as she faces a future that seems bleak but also as she is aware that life goes on. It is a message of modified hope for a novel that has captured the beauty of life as well as its frustration, the satisfactions experienced as well as the struggles, the peace as well as the sense of incompleteness.

This work, in fact, has an ending that is not an ending. It stops, just as a thought stops, as a fate stops, before veering off into a new direction. (March, 2015)

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