TransAtlantic, Colum McCann, Random House Inc, 2013, 262 pp
Part family saga, part historical fiction, and a big love song to Ireland, TransAtlantic is an emotional journey of a novel. Interwoven with the lives of four women are tales of historical figures.
Lily, a housemaid who escaped the Irish Potato Famine in 1845, was inspired to find freedom in the United States by Frederick Douglass when he visited Dublin. Lily's daughter Emily, a journalist, eventually sailed for Britain with her female offspring, Lottie, after covering the first transatlantic flight made by Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown. Lottie settled in Belfast with her English husband and in later years met ex-senator George Mitchell, sent by President Clinton to help broker the Belfast Peace Agreement. Lottie's daughter Hannah lived through and suffered during The Troubles and ends the matrilineal line in true 21st century style.
Perhaps I shouldn't have made the above paragraph so orderly because Colum McCann's story does not fall out in linear fashion. Much of the pleasure found in this novel is due to the way he structured the tale. He opens in 1919 with the transatlantic flight, establishing an imagery of ocean crossings that plays throughout, then shoots back to 1845 and Frederick Douglass.
Lily Duggan sets the tone for the four women: feisty and tough with endless reserves of courage. These women are ancient Celtic goddesses reincarnated into roles of the last century and a half. The whole thing is like a rock ballad from the acoustic intro through heartfelt verses to power chord choruses that build to the climax and final fadeout.
I first fell in love with Colum McCann when I read Dancer, his fictional tribute to Rudolf Nureyev. History, tragedy, and passion lived in the dancer's very veins. He suffered it all, danced it, reveled in it. TransAtlantic is a full 75 pages shorter yet encompasses at least eight fully developed characters as it touches on several major historical events. An economy of prose, shorn of any unnecessary verbiage, brings each character to life and shows the impact of history on the people who live through it.
The story grows, the intensity ebbs and falls but never fades. Facts and locations and episodes bloom into emotional significance. Is it an Irish thing? By the end, I felt I was floating in eternity, feeling the never-ending influence on the present of what has come before even as our lives flow into and create what will be the future.
For the epigraph, McCann quotes Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. "No history is mute. No matter how much they own it, break it, and lie about it, human history refuses to shut its mouth. Despite deafness and ignorance, the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is." Not an Irish thing, a literary thing.
(TransAtlantic is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)