Thursday, June 27, 2013

TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann

TransAtlantic begins with three fictionalized accounts of Atlantic crossings, beginning with the first transatlantic flight, made by British aviators Alcock and Brown in 1929, a flight that "took the war out of the machine." The second is Frederick Douglass's trip to Ireland and England in 1845, in which he raised money for the abolition cause (and avoided being sent back into slavery). The last is Senator George Mitchell's nearly endless series of trips across the pond as he sought to broker what came to be known as the Good Friday Accords, signed in 1998.

The remainder of the book follows four generations of Irish-American women whose lives intersect with the three "true" stories. Lily Duggan is a maid in the household where Frederick Douglass first stays in Ireland. Inspired by and mildly infatuated with Douglass, she leaves service to follow Douglass to Cork; his failure even to recognize her drives her to emigrate to the United States, where she takes on a variety of jobs before becoming a Civil War nurse. When her son is killed, she marries the ice man and has a new family, including her daughter Emily. Late in her life, she and Emily go to hear Douglas speak in St. Louis.

Emily becomes a writer. She covers the Alcock/Brown story, and her daughter Lottie takes photographs of the two. Ten years later they travel to Ireland to interview Brown, who no longer flies (Alcock has long since died in a plane crash). While in Ireland, Lottie meets and marries an Irishman. They have a daughter named Hannah, whose son Tomas who is killed at 19 in "The Troubles." Lottie, who meets Senator Mitchell on the tennis courts, finds healing for her grief once the Accords are signed. For Hannah,  such is not the case, and her life is awash in pain and financial problems. A letter dating to the 1929 transAtlantic flight may hold the key to her financial future . . . or it may not.

As a huge fan of McCann's Let the Great World Spin, I had high hopes for TransAtlantic, hopes that it did not quite live up to. The first of the "true" stories is the most compelling, perhaps because it is the least well-known and thus takes most readily to being fictionalized. The Mitchell story is the strangest, perhaps--in similar fashion--because it involves a "character" who is well-known to newspaper readers of the past 20 years. While the stories of the Duggan women are interesting, they occasionally drag--Hannah's story that ends the book is especially slow-paced. How all these "true" stories and the stories of the women fit together--other than in the obvious plot intersections--is unclear. Although I feel sure it was not McCann's intent, there were some moments when I felt that the theme might be "Men do important things, and women suffer."

However, McCann's writing is often quite beautiful and makes TransAtlantic a worthwhile read even if its parts don't seem to add up to any larger whole. Although Michiko Kakutani described McCann as having "an annoying habit here of embroidering his prose," I enjoy the needlework. One technique that McCann uses often that might be annoying if employed by a lesser writer is listing; while it sounds odd, the technique works to layer detail upon detail in building a scene or idea. To wit: "The ancient monks used reeds to paint the gospels. Cowhide and wolfskin and the pelt of elk to keep out the weather. They ground down bone, mixed it with grass and soil and berries and plants. Bird quills. Leather binding. Stone huts. Bronze bells. A series of walls for defense. Round towers for lookout. The fires they lit were small. The books they wrote were taken then across the lough, across the sea, to Scotland."  I love the way he piles up these elements to let the reader put them together--and I'll read his next book for more of that kind of writing.

Favorite passages:. . . it was immediately understood that they both needed a clean slate. The obliteration of memory. The creation of a new moment, raw, dynamic, warless. It was as if they wanted to take their older bodies and put their younger hearts inside. 

There is always room for at least two truths.

What was a life anyway? An accumulation of small shelves of incident. Stacked at odd angles to each other. The long blades of an ice saw cutting sparks into a block of cold. Sharpening the blades, seating them, slotting them into handles. Leaning down to make the cut. A brief leap of ember in the air.

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