|Colum McCann photo thanks to the Irish Times.|
I have long been a fan of Irish-born American Colum McCann, after reading This Side of Brightness and more recently Let the Great World Spin for book club. Now, stepping into a Colum McCann novel is like taking a well-earned holiday somewhere guaranteed to be life-changing and incredibly beautiful—I just know I’m in for a treat. And so it was with McCann's latest book TransAtlantic. I picked it up from Folio Books in Brisbane city as the blurb promised it might be linked in some way to my own historical fiction project, which begins in Ireland in 1840 and which I have been attacking in fits and spurts for some time now. But really, purchasing this novel was simply a guilty pleasure. I was ahead with my book club reading, my book for review hadn’t yet arrived from Good Reading magazine—or at least tossed onto my balcony (our postie tends to mix up a few of our local streets, but at least he gets the numbers right), and I was on uni holidays. I was going to savour Colum McCann. I was going to taste his words, rather than crunch through them, dip in and out, and sigh a lot. Which is exactly what I did.
But about the book. TransAtlantic zigs and zags across time between Ireland and North America first by boat, then by aircraft—describing in vivid detail the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland by historical figures Alcock and Brown. (Interestingly, the main male characters of the book are real, the female leads fictional, but no matter.) The book goes on to trace the fortunes of an illiterate Irish maid, the American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a pioneering female journalist, a talented photographer, American peace-maker Senator George Mitchell …
'So many of our lives are thrown into long migratory orbits.'then a woman who loses her son in a senseless act of violence during the Irish ‘troubles’ who drops her bundle (who could blame her?) but finds the world does go on. It is this sense of hope in a sea of loss that marks Colum McCann novels, I have found. In the case of this one, it is the loss of a child against the mystery and potency of an ancient unopened letter that is the crux of the story. Well that, and slavery versus freedom, and war versus peace.
'There isn’t a story in the world that isn’t in part, at least, addressed to the past.'
What the letter contains becomes less important than what it signifies:
'… it’s preservation of possibility, the slight chance that it contains a startling fact, or an insight into some forgotten beauty.'
So, although we are linked to the past, through blood, through stories, what we make of the present is perhaps the most vital point.
TransAtlantic is delicately sad and incredibly beautiful, and lovers of stunning sentences will not be disappointed—you are in the hands of a master (or is that a master in your hands?). One small word of warning for those who are not fans of sentence fragments. There are many. My writers' group pals will attest that I'm growing, if not fond then at least, tolerant of them and I acknowledge the creative prerogative in using them. When you come to the rather sudden end of TransAtlantic be sure to go back and read the first couple of pages, before Book One. It ties everything together and is guaranteed to make you … sigh. Maybe shed a little tear too. Simply beautiful.