TransAtlantic by Column McCann (Bloomsbury - May 2013)
Let the Great World Spin was the ‘must-read’ novel that won Column McCann the National Book Award in 2009. His latest book TransAtlantic is equally enchanting and it is therefore no surprise that it has made this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist. Although brilliance takes flight in both books, in TransAtlantic McCann’s scope rises even higher and therefore the fall is potentially greater. Here we have not merely a daring and dazzling tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Centre, but a non-stop crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a Vickers Vimy; and that is just the starting point. But it seems McCann is at home in a lofty environment. Can the reason be that he writes in a 9th floor apartment?
It is said that any author’s first novel tends to be autobiographical. When it comes to writing McCann is certainly not a debutante and this story clearly doesn’t reveal his domestic particulars. In fact this book is jam-packed with historical events and public figures, but even so it transcends a personal urgency as if the author was dealing with topics that have shaped his cultural identity. I found myself wondering to what extend McCann himself feels the challenge of having a foot on either side of the Atlantic as he is originally from Dublin and is now a Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Hunter College, New York.
As mentioned, at first glance this historical novel evolves around well-documented events, spanning from 1845 to 2012, and draw on the connection between the ‘New World’ and Ireland; from the early years of the Potato Famine to the peace efforts of the Good Friday Agreements of 1998 and beyond. McCann’s approach is bold; he is not afraid to rush through the past—to shine light on the American Civil War in one chapter and discuss the 1929 Wall Street Crash in the next.
While the men in this book do and die in the spotlight and are often real-life celebrities; for instance the African-American former slave and social reformer Frederick Douglass, or George J. Mitchell a United State Senator from Maine; the women are largely fictional and without Wikipedia references. It would be inaccurate to call these women stereotypes as McCann is too good a craftsman to descend into sloppy writing, but in contrast to the men the women might as well be called Susan Sample or Carole Case-in-point. Yet it is the women that are at the emotional heart of this story. They preserve family secrets, write articles and take photographs, keep up with correspondence, mend socks, cook dinner, raise children, nurse the sick and ultimately bury the dead.
Lily Duggan is one of many maids who embarked for America to survive the famine but never quite forgot her roots. Her daughter Emily Ehrlich, granddaughter Lottie Tuttle and great-granddaughter Hannah Carson are all marked by the rift between the continents and the uncertainty that comes with conflict and deprivation. Though these women are not necessarily always the victims of history, Column McCann casts them in the role of witnesses. Arguably, some readers may find these portraits slightly clichéd but the truth is that McCann is not altogether wrong in suggesting that women find it more difficult to distinguish themselves. However, it is their observations, the experiences of these four generations of ‘ordinary’ women, torn between the US and Ireland, that are the real focus of the story.
McCann’s use of metaphor is acute and he maximises the impact of his figurative language by giving it a long lifespan. The central metaphor is obviously the transatlantic flight itself which is mirrored in the metaphor of playing tennis, which again is reminiscent of the rift between the two worlds and how thoughts, influences and people bounce back and forth. Another strong aspect of the book is the constant sense of suspense and peril. We are made to empathise with the vulnerable nature of the characters, and pick up on the unstable circumstances that are at the core of all life. This is beautifully illustrated through Mr Ehrlich, for example, who makes a living as an ice farmer. We can sense danger as he daily tests the thin ice until it is solid enough to be farmed. The ice, with which he makes a living, eventually becomes his undoing. But it is not just these powerful images that make this account gripping and poetic.
Each sentence is well measured, even economic, as if it was a line of poetry, and this creates an enchanting rhythm to the text. I first noticed this when I heard the ‘1919 cloud-shadow’ chapter being read on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast. There is an assured and precise cadence of short, sharp sentences that can be associated with poetry. Furthermore, I admire McCann’s sense of humour that blends into the seriousness of the events. Here he introduces Alcock, one of the two intrepid pilots:
He was twenty-six years old. From Manchester. He was lean, handsome, daring, the sort of man who looked straight ahead but stayed open to laughter. He had a head of ginger hair. A single man, he said he loved women but preferred engines.
Despite the pristine method that dominates the sentences, McCann completely disregards the chronological order of events. We are catapulted through time as if in a time-machine. Of course, this suggests the presence of a non-linear narrative, a story that is trapped in a perpetual cycle. But even so I wasn’t convinced that the benefits of this creative choice outweighed the downfalls. I have to admit that I kept getting confused as to who was who, especially as the women have, of course, both a maiden and a married name and keep popping up in different parts of the globe.
Overall, I found this to be a very touching and thoughtful story. It is impressive how many milestones of history McCann manages to pack into three hundred odd pages without crushing the subtle points. In the end all the character-strands are cleverly knitted together to create a coherent whole. Some of these links are not as strong as others but the effect of bringing history to life is, nevertheless, worth the suspension of disbelief.