A word of warning before we recommend Colum McCann’s excellent new novel: if you’re taking this book on holidays, best not to start it on the flight over.
For Transatlantic begins with an edge-of-the-seat description of an attempt at the first non-stop flight between the U.S. and Ireland. Aviators Alcock and Brown are our men in the tiny cockpit in 1919, charged with getting across the Atlantic in one piece and captured definitively by McCann’s thrilling, poetic prose.
Here, their plane noses up through ‘the slap of bark’, ‘the tangle of stems’ and then finally to ‘the applause of branches below’.
Alcock and Brown do take off, watched from the ground by local journalist Emily Ehrlich. So too does McCann take flight as his story journies through time and timezones, criss-crossing the Atlantic to make connections between lives lived and living.
The nut of Transatlantic is a trio of daring acts by men: first, our plucky pilots; then back to Ireland 1845 and Frederick Douglass, a black American abolitionist looking to gain support for his anti slavery campaign; then to 1998 and Senator George Mitchell, Bill Clinton’s peace envoy, charged with wrestling gnarly old Northern Irish politics in submission.
It is here that that McCann really soars with a deeply convincing retelling of the hours before the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, as seen through the eyes of the American visitor, Mitchell.
There is brilliant detail – Blair hunts down the only shower in Stormont, Mitchell discovers the chief Irish negotiating tool of tea – and all the while the faces of those beyond the peace talks haunting the mild mannered senator, the dead alive in the living.
In his previous, best selling work Let the Great World Spin, McCann employed the daring of high wire artist Philippe Petit crossing the Twin Towers in New York 1974 to entwine the lives of those watching from below.
Transatlantic is similarly concerned with those headline acts of daring, but then with the quieter stories below. So, book two of the novel switches the action to four generations of women, making connections with the men and the times described before.
There are plenty more flights across the ocean before Transatlantic reaches its end – none so bumpy as its first – but each with far reaching cause and effect, back and forth across space and time.
So effective is McCann's storytelling that the reader is held aloft throughout, as if airborne too, breath held, waiting to land. But more than technique, this is a deeply felt piece of work. It is a dazzling display of daring from McCann to match the feats of his high flying characters.