TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann

Inspired in part by Alcock and Brown’s pioneering transatlantic flight, the Irish author’s new novel is his finest since ‘This Side of Brightness’

Thu, Oct 17, 2013, 12:03


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Colum McCann


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People do the oddest things. Having survived the horrors of the Great War, two British veterans decided to again defy death, this time on their own terms, by attempting the first transatlantic flight. The story of how John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown took off from St John’s in Newfoundland on June 14th, 1919, to battle ice, cold and gravity itself, landing just under 16 hours later, nose first, in a Connemara bog, remains one of mankind’s most thrilling adventures. Alcock died six months later, crashing near Rouen on his way to the Paris air show; Brown, the self-taught navigator, never flew again and died in 1948.

Their aircraft was a decommissioned bomber, a Vickers Vimy, yet it may as well have been a chariot as it fought its way through cloud and darkness. It is a powerful image: a dragonfly constructed of wood and linen and wire, open to the elements.

The Irish novelist Colum McCann, with his magpie’s feel for the poetry of hope and daring, takes this historic moment as the inspiration for his finest book since his debut, This Side of Brightness (1998). The opening sequence of TransAtlantic achieves an uncanny immediacy as the airmen sit in the cramped, open cockpit listening to the aircraft slowly falling apart. “A couple of hours into the flight Brown hears a light snap. He puts on his goggles, leans over the fuselage, watches the small propeller on the wireless generator spin uselessly for a second, shear, then break away. No radio now. No contact with anyone . . . One snap might lead to another.”

As their navigational equipment fails they realise they are flying entirely by dead reckoning. The tension builds, and although we know the story it is as if this is happening before our eyes. The aviators have only each other and possible death. “The bones in their ears ring. The racket is stuck inside their skulls. The small white rooms of their minds . . . There are times Brown feels that the engines are trying to burst out from behind his eyes.”

It is even more daunting to consider that Brown climbed out of his seat at least six times during the flight to brush away ice that had gathered on the wings.

It does no disservice to McCann to suggest that this is by far the most compelling section of the book, and it also establishes a unifying theme of flight and hope.

Almost a century later Senator George Mitchell also flies to Ireland, in a very different aircraft, intending to mediate for peace. An older man but also, following a second marriage, a new father, Mitchell, conscious of having a fresh chance at domesticity, is torn between home and duty, yet he has been dispatched as a knight of old to secure peace.

Before that, though, just as the deadly Famine of 1845 is preparing to alter the course of Irish history, a former black slave, Frederick Douglass, arrives in Ireland, at the behest of his tetchy Irish publisher, to discuss the concept of freedom as well as to promote his autobiography. Douglass will share a platform with Daniel O’Connell. People fawn and flatter the dashing – and self-absorbed – black American, yet even he is humbled by the courage of a young serving girl, Lily, who seizes on his visit as the inspiration to strike for a new life away from servitude.

McCann’s prose aspires towards the atmospheric and descriptive. At times the rhythms are staccato and the tone becomes cryptic and too incantatory, which makes it contrived and overly lyrical. Stylistically, McCann shares a great deal with Michael Ondaatje, while the presence of Don DeLillo, both in form and content, is also apparent. Just as DeLillo makes use of baseball in Underworld (1998), McCann builds on tennis as a telling metaphor, the sense of a rally. The tennis ball moves back and forth just as ideas are introduced, exchanged, discarded or lost. He wants to convey that sense of a moment, the belief in a second chance. Lily walks from Dublin to Cork; she then breaks free and arrives in the United States. She has a son. He dies in the civil war, and she finds and reclaims his body for burial. She then takes another chance, this time with an older man, which gives her a husband and further children. In telling Lily’s story, McCann, as elsewhere, relies unashamedly on Dickensian coincidence.

In This Side of Brightness Nathan Walker and his buddies earn their living by walking the steel beams hoisted heavenwards in the construction of the tall buildings that in time create New York’s skyline. Others, such as Treefrog, tunnel beneath the city. Yet McCann favours the air. In Let the Great World Spin (2009) he uses the image of a man appearing to walk in the sky, a device inspired by Philippe Petit’s famous stroll along a tightrope suspended between the twin towers of the World Trade Center on August 7th, 1974. “Up there, at the height of a hundred and ten stories, utterly still, a dark toy against the cloudy sky . . . The man remained rigid, and yet his mystery was mobile.”

History is fundamental to McCann’s vision of how stories shape us, how an instant influences eternity or, as Lily’s daughter, Emily Ehrlich, the Newfoundland journalist and single parent in TransAtlantic , joined by a thread to Ireland, asks herself: “What was a life anyway? An accumulation of small shelves of incident. Stacked at odd angles to each other.”

TransAtlantic is an often topical and timely celebration of the bonds between the US and Ireland. There is far more than the geographical convenience serving sailors and aviators. Central to this relationship is a wayward love of liberty that was long the thorn that irritated colonisers.

McCann summons the presence of two very different Americans in Douglass and Mitchell, who both came to Ireland by invitation. Ireland and the US are juxtaposed as characters move between the two countries, again appearing to mimic the action of a tennis game. Mitchell notes the similarities between Belfast tea ladies and the women back home in Maine. McCann’s grasp of the layers of wary understanding and ambivalence undercutting southern Irish attitudes towards the North is astutely understated.

It is the humanity on which history rests, rather than the events of history, that forms the bedrock of TransAtlantic . The young servant girl, Lily, takes a leap of faith; her journalist daughter, Emily, another, in attempting to heal the damage done to her by a vengeful lover. Emily Ehrlich and her young daughter, Lottie, are linked to Douglass through Lily. It is Emily who reports on Alcock and Brown, Lottie who makes the sandwiches the airmen eat during the flight. Their intimate mother-daughter relationship is convincingly handled. Far too much or too little rests on a letter that is never delivered, while the narrative voice of the fourth generation of women, Hannah, Lily’s great granddaughter and another grieving mother, never quite convinces.

One might ask why McCann chose to adopt the first person in the closing chapter when the omniscient narrative had worked so successfully up to then. Hannah frequently sounds as if she has wandered out of a Jennifer Johnston novel. It would also have been interesting to see a list of his source materials.

Yet these are minor quibbles. Colum McCann is drawn to lives lived, and his vivid, reactive and heartfelt fiction lives and breathes, sighs and weeps. Above all, his characters remember the past and contemplate the future.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent.