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Now the focus on crossing the Atlantic has been replaced by a focus on the female descendents of Lily, who are Emily, Lottie, and Hannah.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)

Four Letters of Love, by Niall Williams

This is a beautifully written 1998 novel that troubled me during the reading, but then was spellbinding toward the end, except a conclusion that seemed to be just but also arbitrary. Overall, this is a love story between Isabel and Nicholas, who never meet until the final forty pages—forty pages that are the highlight of the novel. They do not meet because Nicholas lives in a Dublin suburb with his father William Coughlin, a civil servant whom God told to become an artist, and his mother Bette; while Isabel lives on an island off the west coast of Ireland with her father Muiris Gore, the local schoolmaster, her mother Margaret, and her brother Sean.

I was troubled first because the lovers take so long to meet, but also because Isabel’s life is told in the third person and Nicholas’ in the first person. In an afterward, the author explains that Nicholas is really telling Isabel’s story; and that the lovers do not meet until late in the story because what interests him most here is the pattern or design in life that brings people together, not what happens afterward. Which I can certainly testify to in my own life, where the pattern of losing my parents and encountering my one love is far more interesting, to anyone outside my family, than the life that followed.

Another element that bothered me was the arbitrariness of the ending. Which the author also explains. I noted the significance of his line that “the plots of love and God are one and the same thing.” Meaning, I felt, that God is love, and that the love between humans is a metaphor for the relationship between God and all humans. But Williams also means that, despite all the obstacles, this love story was inevitable, “that loving Isabel Gore was what Nicholas Coughlin was born to do.”

Another aspect of the ending was also bothersome. There is almost unbearable tension in waiting for the outcome of the last four love letters that Nicholas writes—that is, learning the final destiny of these lovers, whether they will be together or apart—but that destiny reverses itself too many times. Indeed, the final answer seems almost arbitrary—until one realizes it fits the author’s theme. But I do question the need for so many reversals.

There is a spiritual magic that fits seamlessly into this novel, both because of its mystical Irish setting and because of the link it makes between the living and the dead. That is, Nicholas’ dead father, the creator of a painting that brings Nicholas to Isabel’s world, is very alive in the first part of the book, as Nicholas tries to connect with him; and then his father’s spirit does connect, appearing at crucial moments to aid his son’s pursuit of Isabel.

Another mysterious element is the stroke that early in the novel paralyzes Sean, Isabel’s brother. There is no explanation, but Isabel blames herself. And then Nicholas arrives on the island, to buy back his father’s painting as his own means of connecting with him. Whereupon, he takes Sean to the same site where Sean suffered the stroke, and the boy is cured—which is long before Nicholas meets and falls in love with Isabel.

Nicholas has no explanation for the cure, indeed denies he has done anything, but it as if he has brought a mysterious goodness to the family on this island, a goodness that will later impress Isabel. One can only suggest that this goodness comes from God, and is part of the destiny that moves all our lives.

While organized religion plays no role in this novel, the work is deeply spiritual, and God is present everywhere in the lives of these characters—in their loves, their dreams, their inspiration, and their fate. Indeed, early on, the narrator Nicholas writes about his boyhood. “It seemed to me, God came to live in our house. He was not often spoken of, and was never addressed. And yet we knew he was there. Not exactly holy, not exactly prayerful, but a kind of presence.” It is this presence, one senses, that follows Nicholas to the island and perhaps results in the cure of Sean.

Another mysterious element are the flies that inundate the island as the love of Isabel and Nicholas is challenged by Isabel’s mother. Except, they do not invade the cottage where the good Nicholas is staying—as if the evil of their separation exists elsewhere. And these flies vanish when the human obstacle to the couple’s love no longer exists.

As I approached the ending, this novel seemed to be leading toward tragedy, toward a death of one of these characters that so engaged me. But Williams’ interest is not in creating a literary impact; it is in portraying human fulfillment, in destinies he sees infused by love, and by the loving hand of God. And who am I to dispute the appropriateness of that approach in a work of literature?

When Williams writes, “the plots of love and God are the same thing,” he is writing about more than Nicholas and Isabel. For there are other love stories here, that of William Coughlin and his wife and how they met, that of Muiris Gore and his wife, both how they met and how Margaret sustains their love (whereas Nicholas’ mother Bette could not), that of Isabel and her brother Sean, that of Peader O’Luing’s pursuit of and appeal to Isabel, and that of Nicholas and his father William.

Williams also captures the many permutations of love in the thoughts of Isabel’s mother: ”If Margaret Gore had spoken to her daughter she could have told her. In love everything changes, and continues changing all the time. There is no stillness, no stopped clock of the heart in which the moment of happiness holds forever, but only the constant whirring forward motion of desire and need, rising and falling, falling and rising, full of doubts then certainties that moment by moment change and become doubts again.”

Despite my many criticisms of this novel, it confirms my interest in reading more of Williams. First, because of his beautiful, evocative style, and then because of the presence of many varieties of love, but mainly because the spirit of God impacts the lives of these characters. As Kathleen Weber wrote perceptively in the Times, this novel gives us “ a place devoted to the belief in miracles and the obsessive power of love.” (January, 2015)