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‘Transatlantic’: two countries, two centuries, dazzling stories
Colum McCann’s incandescent new novel, “Transatlantic,” chronicles the web of connections, past and present, back and forth between America and Ireland. McCann appears June 17 at Town Hall Seattle.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “Transatlantic” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Monday, June 17, at Town Hall Seattle. Tickets are $5, and are available at the door starting at 6:30 p.m., or in advance via www.townhallseattle.org (888-377-4510).
by Colum McCann
Random House, 262 pp., $27
Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin” — a dizzying, exhilarating portrait of a summer day in 1974 Manhattan, as onlookers watched an aerialist walk a tightrope between the World Trade Towers — won the National Book Award for fiction in 2009, along with numerous other honors. Four years later, the Irish-born writer (now based in New York) returns with “Transatlantic” — another sweeping, beautifully constructed tapestry of life; this time, across two countries and the better part of two centuries. I hope we don’t have to wait another four years for the next one. Reading McCann is a rare joy.
Like “Let the Great World Spin” (which never named the real-life tightrope walker at its center, Philippe Petit), “Transatlantic” gets its breath from real events — and, though Ireland is at its heart, many of its characters come from other lands. We fly across the Atlantic with British aviators Jack Alcock and Arthur “Teddy” Brown in 1919, as they touch down on Irish soil to complete the first nonstop transatlantic flight.
The American social reformer, writer, orator and statesman Frederick Douglass, then still technically an escaped slave, visited Ireland in 1845-46 on a speaking tour for his autobiography; he’s shocked by the potato-famine poverty he finds there, where “the poor were so thin and white, they were almost lunar.” In 1998, U.S. Senator George Mitchell traveled to Northern Ireland to broker what became the Belfast Peace Agreement. He sees the accord as something crafted by others; he just wants to bring it in, to land it “like one of those great lumbering machines of the early part of the century, the crates of air and wood and wire they somehow flew across the water.”
Alongside these real-life men are four generations of women, whose fictional lives touch those of known history. Lily Duggan, an Irish maid who was inspired by Douglass to leave for a new life in 19th-century America, remembers listening to “strange talk. Ideas of democracy, faith, slavery, benevolence, empire. These were things she couldn’t quite understand, but they suggested an elsewhere.”
We also meet — in mostly non-chronological order — Lily’s daughter Emily, who found home in that “elsewhere”; Emily’s daughter Charlotte (Lottie), drawn back to Ireland by an old story; and Lottie’s daughter Hannah, who’s in her 70s in the present day, in a cottage by a lough (the Irish word for lake) where seagulls drop oysters on the roof, their cracking shells punctuating the quiet morning.
Together, these real and invented lives weave stories of travel, of the ideas of home and of foreignness, of the way a vast ocean links two continents, and how crossing it has changed from transformative ordeal to everyday occurrence. The ocean — and the world — has grown smaller; the richness of experience, as these characters convey in their outpourings of words, has not.
Like Virginia Woolf (who’s referenced in this book; both Emily and Charlotte enjoy her novels), McCann is a master of stream-of-consciousness narrative, of the technique of re-creating what Woolf famously called the “luminous halo” of life — “a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end, ” Woolf writes. McCann’s short phrases overlap, like dabs in a pointillist painting, creating a richly detailed picture that feels like slipping inside the character’s heads, joining them as they live their lives, if only for a moment.
“Transatlantic” begins and ends with a letter that traveled across the Atlantic, like these characters. In this glowing novel’s final gift, we read that letter; it’s a reminder of the interconnectedness of lives, and of the power and beauty of words.
Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.