Friday, October 9, 2015

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann: The Great World Keeps Spinning

When I abandon a book I'm reading, I rarely return to it, but when I do, I'm usually rewarded. Such was the case with Colum McCann's TransAtlantic. I had loved Let the Great World Spin, and with the new movie about Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, I've been thinking back to that particular novel, in which the author wove together a number of stories.

While McCann's earlier novel captures life in New York City over a short period of time, TransAtlantic crosses not only the ocean but a broad span of time, perhaps 150 years. He opens with the story of two pilots making the first Atlantic crossing with much media attention, then flashes back to a visit to Ireland by Frederick Douglas.

The remaining story moves back and forth between England and Ireland, between Ireland and the United States. While the pilots and Douglas play important roles in the story, McCann particularly follows the lives of several generations of women, beginning with an Irish woman working as a maid in a house visited by Douglas and the daughters and granddaughters that follow.

McCann's telling of the story, though, holds back the connections between characters at first, so that when they are revealed, readers get the sense of completing a puzzle. This lineage of Irish American women are imbued with a strong sense of independence, pioneers in photojournalism, world travelers.

Through the interwoven narratives, McCann's writing style sometimes verges on poetic, at other times almost reportorial. He uses the historical backdrop, peopled by real figures--Douglas, British pilots Alcock and Brown, Senator George Mitchell at the center of the  Northern Ireland Good Friday peace accords--crossing paths with Lily Duggan, her daughter Emily, granddaughter Lottie and her daughter Hannah, an unopened letter that had made that historic trans-Atlantic flight,passing from hand to hand.

The small scenes McCann crafts, placing his characters in situations of heartbreak and endurance, continue to echo with readers like memories.

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