Colum McCann works best at high altitudes.
With his last novel, “Let the Great World Spin,” McCann won the National Book Award for his series of stories about New Yorkers who were changed the day Philippe Petit walked on a wire between the Twin Towers.
His newest novel, “TransAtlantic,” spans 150 years rather than just a few days, but it too features high-flying daredevils and interlocking tales that hinge on real-life events.
The novel opens in 1919, as James Alcock and Teddy Brown prepare to pilot their Vickers Vimy bomber for the first successful transatlantic flight, carrying a bag full of the world's first airmail. (One of those letters will figure in the novel's final section.) As parts break off their plane and they fly blindly through clouds, running the risk of freezing to death, the two men can't even speak to each other over the noise. Neither can swim, but they're supplied with ham sandwiches and flasks of hot tea, licorice and chocolate bars. Razors are packed carefully into their luggage, so that they can present smoothly shaven countenances for reporters on the other side.
Their flight raised the possibilities for flight beyond warfare. As one character points out, the two men “took the war out of the plane.”
The next sections of the novel follow two American statesmen on journeys to Ireland.
As the Potato Famine gets its grip on the land, Frederick Douglass arrives in Ireland to raise money for abolition. The former slave has never seen anything like the starvation he encounters on the road, the most poignant episode involving a young mother desperately trying to get help for her dead baby. The deaths are doubly shameful since the warehouses are full of food bound for overseas.
Douglass is horrified, but is unsure what to do: He's there to raise money for the cause of ending slavery in America and is afraid to offend the people who funded his tour.
“His body, his mind, his soul, had, for years, served only for the profit of others. He had his own people to whom he was pledged. Three million. They were the currency of his freedom. What weight would he carry if he tried to support the Irish, too? Their agonies, their ambiguities. He had enough of his own.
The barges passed.
A river of food afloat.”
Douglass unknowingly becomes the object of infatuation of one of his host's young maids. Lily Duggan ends up sailing for America, and she and four generations of her female descendants provide the bridge that carries the novel from the Civil War to the just before the Great Recession.
But first the novel jumps to 1998 and former Sen. George Mitchell, as he presides over the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. McCann assumes that readers are well-acquainted with the Troubles that wracked Northern Ireland. If not, you'll be completely at sea during this section, since McCann only refers to the decades of violence obliquely. But his flattering rendition of Mitchell, the gentlemanly statesman, draws on firsthand sources: Mitchell and his wife. McCann writes in an afterword that the Mitchells “had the great grace to allow me to imagine myself into their world.”
The second half of the novel centers on McCann's fictional family, following Lily Duggan and her descendants as they forge new paths for themselves on both sides of the Atlantic. While Lily traveled on a coffin boat, her granddaughter travels back to Ireland on a first-class cabin in a cruise ship.
While Lily was illiterate for much of her life, her daughter falls asleep over her books, with her long hair as a bookmark.
“Stories began, for her , as a lump in the throat,” she thinks. “She felt a sort of homesickness whenever she sat down at a sheet of paper.”
McCann is a stunning writer, but he is overly fond of the sentence fragment. Breaking sentences up. Into three or four words. To add portent.
For example: “The best moments were when her mind seemed to implode. It made a shambles of time. All the light disappeared. The infinity of her inkwell. A quiver of dark at the end of the pen.”
Or: "We prefigure our futures by imagining our pasts. To go back and forth. Across the waters. The past, the present, the elusive future. A nation. Everything constantly shifted by the present. The taut elastic of time.”
But while it's a noticeable tic, it's a forgivable one when weighed against the breadth and sweep of the novel as a whole.
“What was a life anyway?” a woman asks herself. “An accumulation of small shelves of incident. Stacked at odd angles to each other.”
McCann has painstakingly stacked his shelves to create one of the more beautifully written novels of the year.