Monday, 11 November 2013

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

Colum McCann swept me away with Let the Great World Spin a few years ago. With his new novel TransAtlantic he manifests his positions as one of the greatest novelists alive. With a masterfully crafted plot structure, binding together major "transatlantic" public events before narrowing it down to the private, McCann truly manages to address issues of identity, heritage and history.

Three historical events make up Book 1 of the novel. The first one is set in 1919 and gives us an inside look into Brown and Alcock's minds before and during their flight from Newfoundland to Ireland. Their feat was the first non-stop transatlantic flight, and it was to change world travel. With them on the plane they carried a letter from Emily and Lottie Ehrlich, which was never to reach its destination.

The second story revolves around Frederick Douglass who came to Ireland in 1845 for whip up support for the abolitionist movement. The crowds generally love him, but on the sidelines, Douglass sees a starving people. The social gap is huge, and Douglass cannot fail to see the hypocrisy in his Irish supporters. Slavery, it seems, isn't only about being in chains. During his stay, Douglass inadvertently inspires his host's maid Lily to break free, and sail to America.

The last story almost echoes the first. The American senator George Mitchell is part of the Irish peace process in 1998, and makes the transatlantic flight on a weekly basis. Trying to reconcile Ireland's bloody history, where every word and turn of phrase is under scrutiny from all sides, is no easy task. To get some distance, Mitchell plays tennis, and this is where he meets Lottie Tuttle, nee Ehrlich, who ended up marrying an Irishman, and so finds herself in the middle of a life her grandmother escaped from.

Book 2 moves us away from these public figures, to the private ones. A move also from male voices to female voices. We finally get the story of Lily, the maid who sailed to America. We follow her as she makes a life for herself there, as she becomes a wife, a mother, a businesswoman. We follow her in her happiness and in her devastation.

Then Emily, the reader, who one day becomes a journalist. Emily who is happy to have no husband, but who spends every waking hour with her daughter Lottie. Emily and Lottie who watch as two pilots set forth on the very first transatlantic journey. Emily who years later, when visiting one of the pilots for a follow-up interview gets the letter back; it was never posted after they landed. Emily who must say goodbye to her daughter when they visit Ireland, as Lottie falls in love.

Lastly the story of Lottie and Hannah. Or rather, of Hannah's boy Thomas, who fell victim to the bloodshed before the peace. The lament of mother and grandmother for the end of a bloodline.

The last story. Hannah alone, with only her dog and the unopened letter her grandmother wrote all those years ago. At 72, Hannah is bankrupt and looks into selling the letter, which may or may refer to Frederick Douglass' visit to Ireland.

The letter begins and ends the novel. Unopened, it is pure potential, a story to be told. Once opened, however, the truth is irrevocable, and there is nothing left to hope for.

This is a big story. People and events crisscrossing the Atlantic. Ripples that cause currents. All in McCann's beautiful prose.

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