Fly­ing in the face of his­tor­i­cal bar­barism

Transat­lantic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ro­nan Mcdon­ald

By Colum McCann Blooms­bury, 298pp, $27.99

COLUM McCann’s award-win­ning 2009 novel Let the Great World Spin was cho­sen by teach­ers and psy­chol­o­gists in New­town, Con­necti­cut, to help stu­dents over­come their grief and trauma fol­low­ing the school shoot­ing mas­sacre last De­cem­ber. The Dublin-born, New-York-based author, who sub­se­quently vis­ited the town, de­scribed his novel’s se­lec­tion for this pur­pose as ‘‘ pos­si­bly the great­est hon­our of my life’’.

How can peo­ple find mean­ing in the face of un­bear­able loss and suf­fer­ing? This is a ques­tion to which McCann’s work re­peat­edly re­turns. In his ear­lier ca­reer he was drawn to tun­nels, dig­ging, the sub­ter­ranean: his 1998 novel This Side of Bright­ness was set in the New York sub­way sys­tem. More re­cently he has veered to­wards the heav­ens. Let the Great World Spin uses Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk across the twin tow­ers to bind a se­ries of New York sto­ries, shad­owed by 9/11.

McCann’s new novel, TransAt­lantic, hinges on an even more dar­ing and au­da­cious act of air­man­ship: John Al­cock and Arthur Brown’s 1919 flight from New­found­land to the west coast of Ire­land in a ren­o­vated Vick­ers Vimy, a World War I bomber stripped of its ‘‘ pen­chant for car­nage’’. The first non­stop trans-At­lantic flight. Thus does hu­man achieve­ment and in­tre­pid­ity counter the buf­fet­ings of grief, loss, con­tin­gency, his­tor­i­cal bar­barism.

De­spite the chocks-away open­ing, TransAt­lantic is far from a Boy’s Own tale of der­ringdo. It seeks to be true and ten­der to suf­fer­ing and trauma in­clud­ing, in a re­peated mo­tif, a mother’s loss of her child. The struc­ture is episodic, im­me­di­ate, mix­ing his­tor­i­cal event with fic­tional re-cre­ation through a va­ri­ety of per­spec­tives and au­tho­rial voices.

The es­caped slave and abo­li­tion­ist cam­paigner Fred­er­ick Dou­glass is in the famin­er­av­aged Ire­land of 1845, where even in Dublin the poor are ‘‘ so thin and white, they were al­most lu­nar’’. He must check his hor­ri­fied re­sponse to poverty and filth lest he alien­ate his bien pen­sant sup­port­ers, more in­ter­ested in the abo­li­tion­ist cause abroad than the mis­eries of home.

Se­na­tor Ge­orge Mitchell crosses the At­lantic al­most eight decades af­ter Al­cock and Brown to help bro­ker North­ern Ire­land’s 1998 Good Fri­day Agree­ment. A ten­nis-play­ing 64-yearold, and a kind and sym­pa­thetic me­di­a­tor, he puts his pub­lic duty be­fore his long­ing to be with his wife and four-month-old baby in New York. The anom­alies be­tween pub­lic cir­cum­stance and pri­vate need are re­cur­rent, ex­pos­ing the un­even­ness and dis­con­ti­nu­ity be­tween per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal spheres.

Dou­glass’s rous­ing speeches of freedom and jus­tice in­spire a serv­ing girl, Lily Dug­gan, to em­i­grate to North Amer­ica. We re­join her in a field hos­pi­tal dur­ing the Amer­i­can Civil War, where she deals with the wounded and dy­ing soldiers. The strug­gle and sto­icism of her hard life is ren­dered with ten­der­ness and hu­man­ity, the tragic be­reave­ments that af­flict her as cold as the ice farm where she and her hus­band make their liv­ing. Her large fam­ily in­cludes a daugh­ter, Emily Ehrlich.

Emily’s am­bi­tion to be a jour­nal­ist is thwarted by vi­cious bias and sex­ism in a novel that un­ban­dages the wounds of gen­der and class. She even­tu­ally be­comes a jour­nal­ist in New­found­land, the same one who ap­pears in the open­ing sec­tion cov­er­ing the Al­cock and Brown flight. Emily writes a let­ter, in­tended to cross the At­lantic with them. It even­tu­ally finds its way into the hands of Emily’s grand­daugh­ter Han­nah Car­son, who in 2012 lives alone in North­ern Ire­land, be­reaved by the Trou­bles. Han­nah’s first-per­son nar­ra­tive of loss and lone­li­ness closes the novel.

‘‘ What was a life any­way?’’ pon­ders Emily. ‘‘ An ac­cu­mu­la­tion of small shelves of in­ci­dent.

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