Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic begins with a great whoosh and a roar. It’s 1919 and two airmen look to heal their battle scars by piloting the first nonstop transatlantic flight. In re-creating Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown’s journey, McCann displays the verve and care he did blending the real-life story of Twin Towers tightrope walker Philippe Petit with fictional events in 2009’s National Book Award winner Let the Great World Spin. History is McCann’s golden anchor. It informs everything, and seeing those connections between past and present and place is what sets us free.
Alcock and Brown — who are asked by a young photographer named Lottie to deliver a letter when they land in Ireland — exemplify just one of the electrifying historical moments on McCann’s menu. After their flight, the author swoops back to 1845, when escaped slave Frederick Douglass is championing the human necessity of democracy to blighted Ireland. Next McCann shifts to 1998, as ex–U.S. senator George Mitchell tries to transcend 30 years of civil war in Ireland with the Good Friday Agreement. Along the way, four generations of women from Lottie’s family bump up against these audacious men.
From page 1, McCann’s prose is almost buoyant — lush without feeling laborious. It is most vivid on subjects like weather and physicality and daily routine. Here is McCann describing a young female journalist’s exuberant work: ”The elaborate search for a word, like the turning of a chain handle on a well. Dropping the bucket down the mineshaft of the mind. Taking up empty bucket after empty bucket until, finally, at an unexpected moment, it caught hard and had a sudden weight and she raised the word, then delved down into the emptiness once more.”
It’s prose rather than plot that carries the reader through the first section of the novel. In the second, McCann turns to the women, beginning with Lottie’s grandmother, and here’s where the story finds its momentum. The threads he’s laid down braid together into a stirring epic. By the end the pages fly, borne aloft not just by McCann’s opera of language but by the drama and fluidity of history. A-
The Opening Lines
”The cottage sat at the edge of the lough. She could hear the wind and rain whipping across the expanse of open water: it hit trees and muscled its way into the grass.”