I am so impressed by Colum McCann’s lyrical writing that I hardly know where to begin. Trans Atlantic is about crossings. That is to say it is about crossings over the Atlantic Ocean, crossings over time, crossings over social barriers, crossings on the way to justice, crossings to a new stage of life requiring a letting go of the old, crossings from one outlook on the world to another. This book reads beautifully but you must be patient and let it unfold.
The structure of the novel in and of itself is unusual because it skips back and forth in time based on three historic events but is held together by the stories of four generations of extraordinary women; mothers and daughters, who are a product of the author’s imagination. The principal characters who play major roles in the events described are famous men whose achievements are well documented while the women who link these events together are ordinary individuals whose lives are woven invisibly into history’s background.
A novelist is basically a storyteller who has the advantage of moulding the printed word. I know in this, I am stating the obvious, but I want to point out Colum McCann’s use of the art form. . The printed word allows the writer to mix things up a little because the reader always has the option of flipping back though the pages to pick up on a missed connection. In Trans Atlantic, Colum McCann does not begin at point ‘A’ but jumps ahead to the year 2012 which is around point ‘W’; not quite the end. Then the story skips to 1919 which is somewhere around ‘L ’on the timeline and then back to 1845 which is point ‘A’ chronologically. Then, there is a quantum leap to 1998, which puts the story somewhere around ‘Q’. To do this and have it all make sense and come together in a coherent, logical way is, I thought, a work of art akin to a painting by Picasso from his cubist period.
The novel is woven around three extraordinary stories. The first of these is the flight of John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1920. The author describes how these two young men, veterans of WW I, and witnesses to all its violence, took up the challenge of being the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air. Their aircraft was a converted warplane that was a little more than a plywood frame covered with canvas. Alcock was the pilot and Brown the navigator. In their plane they sat in seats one behind the other that were not enclosed and were so exposed to the frigid temperatures during their flight that their hands and limbs were often completely numb. Because of the noise from the engines they could only communicate by handing notes back and forth to each other. At times, flying through the dark and the fog they had no idea if the wings of the plane were level or on a perilous tilt because they lacked aviation instrumentation of even the most primative kind.
The second story concerns Frederick Douglass, a man who began life as a slave in the Southern United States and escaped to work with the Abolitionist movement in the North. He was a charismatic speaker and in 1845 crossed the Atlantic on a lecture tour of Ireland and Great Britain. In Ireland Colum McCann imagines that his presence inspired a young, uneducated housemaid named Lily to cross the Atlantic and work toward the Abolitionists cause. Frederick Douglass’s acquaitance with Lily is so slight that he never comes to understand the influence he has on the course of her life. It is through Lily and her descendants that all the major stories and the sub plots of Trans Atlantic are knitted together.
The third story involves Senator George Mitchell who helped introduce peace to Northern Ireland with the Good Friday Accord in 1998. I find it interesting that George Mitchell is still living and made a principal subject of a work of fiction. I cannot help but wonder what he must have thought when he saw his life imagined and written up by a complete stranger. The author describes his idea of the privileges the Senator would have enjoyed such as having a dedicated chauffeur or being escorted to the VIP lounge in airports. And then there are the descriptions of his quotidian existence; such as the small conversations he might have had with his wife or the enjoyment he felt in taking a shower after working all night on the tedious details of the peace negotiations. There is a certain amount of daring in having a contemporary figure appearing in one’s novel but Colum McCann pulls it off quite neatly.
However, beyond the structural innovations that are employed in this novel it is the writing that makes it such a good read. Colum McCann is not afraid to break the rules of sentence structure and punctuation or grammar when it serves his purpose whether his objet is to wind up the intensity of the story or add to the lyricism of the language. As proof I offer here a quote from page 200 from my copy of Trans Atlantic. Lily’s daughter, Emily moves to New York in the early 1900’s and becomes a journalist. This extract describes her passion for the art of storytelling:
…She wanted her articles to have the compression and rhythm of poems. She pushed the words towards the edge of the page. Worked and reworked. The cutting contests in the Rosebud Café, where the musicians pounded hard on the piano keys. A meeting of anarchists in the basement of a tenement in Carr Square. The bare-knuckle boxing fights down near the newsboys’ home on Thirteenth Street. She was in the habit of writing at tangents so there were times that she would stray into a treatise on the patterns of bird migration along the Mississippi, or the excellence that could be found in the German diner on Olive Street.
I think Colum McCann’s writing has ‘the compression and rhythm of poems’ making Trans Atlantic an engrossing and utterly readable novel.