• Colum McCann
  • Random House
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by Daniel Leaderman
  • June 17, 2013

In fluid and evocative prose, the author interweaves the stories of characters both real and imagined on two continents over several generations.

A former slave, an American diplomat and a pair of World War I pilots travel from America to Ireland at different times in history. Their stories lay the groundwork for TransAtlantic, Colum McCann’s quiet but deeply absorbing new novel that also follows several generations of an Irish-American family.

In 1919, two British pilots who survived the Great War team up to make the first transatlantic flight, intending to take off in Newfoundland and land on Ireland’s western coast. In 1845, Frederick Douglass arrives in Dublin to begin a lecture tour about his life and the horrors of slavery, but grows unsettled by the difficult lives of the nominally free Irish poor. And in 1998, former Sen. George Mitchell leaves his young wife and infant son behind in New York and travels to Belfast to help broker peace in Northern Ireland. The details of each journey vary, but the travelers are all driven by the need to achieve some sort of freedom, both for themselves and for others, and McCann contrasts themes of flight and liberation with the powerful pull of home and family left behind.

Airmen Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown are drawn together by a mutual need to destroy their memories of war and by the recognition that their modified Vickers Vimy bomber can offer the literal and figurative escape they crave. A wound from a German bullet has left Brown with a permanent reminder of the war, and his and Alcock’s journey ends with an eerie reminder of that experience.

The 27-year-old Douglass is shocked to arrive in Ireland and realize he is no longer looked on as a fugitive. The Irish, McCann writes, cannot even imagine him on the auction block. But as the weeks progress, Douglass finds a less overt form of oppression while observing both the popular anger at the English control of Ireland’s government and the toll the Great Famine is taking on the country’s poor. He feels  an odd relief when he finds himself taunted with racial slurs on the street, words that have a soothing familiarity.

Mitchell’s journey opens as the 64-year-old is on his way to the airport but unable to leave without a last glimpse of his infant son, whom he will long to see and hold in the weeks that follow. Mitchell’s diplomatic mission comes with a danger and a thrill he likens to a second boyhood, as if his very presence there is a taunt to terrorists and extremists. But he is also haunted by the stories of widows and mothers who have lost their sons to the decades of violence.  

McCann uses the stories of these real men as a frame into which he weaves the fictional story of Lily Duggan and her descendents. Duggan, a young maid in a Dublin house where Douglass is a guest, is inspired by his story and sets off alone for America. Her experiences upon arriving in New York mirror the shock and disillusionment Douglass has felt in her country; the poverty and depravity of the city bear little resemblance to the clean, dignified country she’d imagined based on the handful of Americans she’d seen in Dublin.

Duggan reappears as a nurse in the Civil War, searching for her son, and later as single mother raising four new children alone in the wilderness. McCann follows the family over a century and a half. A daughter crosses paths with the pilots Alcock and Brown years later, and a granddaughter who moved back to Ireland appears in the chorus of women who encourage Mitchell in his efforts to broker peace.

Much of the narrative is internal, but the novel never drags. McCann’s prose is fluid and evocative, and moves seamlessly in and out of the minds of the characters, interweaving  their memories and reflections with their outer journeys and interactions.. The author is efficient in using a few sentences or gestures to make the characters alive.

Despite its episodic and nonlinear structure, the novel also develops a surprising momentum as it progresses, until history itself becomes a journey that mirrors the voyages of the protagonists. The novel’s third and final section follows Duggan’s last descendant, living in Ireland in 2011. There’s a lingering, bittersweet sense that the curtain may be about to drop on the family’s saga, but that a larger story — of families, journeys, death and rebirth — continues. McCann’s enthralling, beautifully rendered narrative reminds the reader that we are made up of the people who came before us; that our lives are only the latest step in a journey that began generations ago.

Daniel Leaderman studied English at Kenyon College and journalism at the University of Maryland. He is a reporter covering state politics in Maryland.

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