Flying in the face of historical barbarism
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.