Fact and fiction mingle in a high-tensile tale that explores 150 years of American and Irish history.
TransAtlantic was a revelation. It explored a genre I was getting interested in, a medley of sorts, with real and imagined, researched and recreated strands, an intimatising of history, and then its appropriation through artistic licence.
I’d just finished reading Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life. And here’s this one doing the same thing, opening with pioneering flights, interweaving stories — fiction and non-fiction stepping into and rising from each other’s path. Barnes startled in his third strand, going tightly personal, brooding on the death of his wife. McCann is also personal in the sense he gathers the stories to him and makes them his.
“We have to admire the world for not ending on us,” he writes, the book’s last line, and that’s what it’s about, the continuity, the meaning glistening after many years.
It starts with the first non-stop transatlantic flight between Newfoundland and Ireland. We meet real war-torn pilots (Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown) and a fictitious mother (Emily Ehrlich, reporter) and daughter (Lottie, photographer) who will reappear, whose descendants/ancestors will keep the story going with other real, famous people, extending and garnishing history, crossing and re-crossing the Atlantic between America and Ireland.
We also meet Frederick Douglass, a Black American campaigning in Ireland for freedom, and Senator George Mitchell flying up and down patching up the Ireland “troubles” while his heart is with his wife and son thousands of miles away. It’s like running into real figures in Forrest Gump. Only here no one’s cameo; they’re inlaid, extended and as real as the fictional characters.
Maintaining brilliance is tough, especially when you’re also doing a chore, charting out an exact weave of history and idea. The high-tensile narrative trembles at some later points, drawing attention to lesser effect, not effort.
McCann is an intrepid writer, he doesn’t baulk at exploring extremes in expression.
Here’s young Lottie with Brown: “She pauses as if she has just popped a number of stray words on the tip of her tongue, odd little things with no flow to them at all, no way to get them out.” When Brown and Alcock land, a sheep begins to run, a magpie still on its back, something Brown will remember forever: it’s “the miracle of the actual”. The miracle is elucidated a decade later by Emily: “You took the war out of the plane” referring to the modified bomber they’d flown. And it’s McCann we think of when he writes about Douglass: “He needed each of his words to appreciate the weight they bore.”
Douglass meets with Royal Dublin Society members, “The sort of men who had hung their swords above the fireplaces of their minds.” He sees a crowd, “as if the whole sponge of Dublin had been squeezed down into a sink. Such a riot of human cutlery.”
McCann doesn’t stop at recreating worlds; he pushes us in at the deep end. Douglass’s sojourn in Ireland, still “unfree” himself but advocating freedom and democracy, his slow realisation that Ireland is in the grip of another captivity — of poverty and famine — is probably the highpoint of the book. Or perhaps not. Perhaps there are multiple highpoints. Hannah’s strand, last in the book and the sole first person narrative, is probably a straightening of perspective; winding up history is always a personal thing. Or only a few low points, if you will, among a plateau of highpoints.
The irony of the slave Douglass being feted and made much of in Ireland while Lily the maid leaves the relative comfort of a home, making the reverse crossing to wallow in hostile conditions in the U.S., raising a family from the ashes of pain and tragedy, is again a fact of the sinuous, serendipitous workings of history. As is much of the composite story.
Which is really why the book seeks fiction’s vision to ponder the insanity of history.
On the sideboard sat a row of photographs. In several of the photos there was a young man, long-haired, handsome. He seemed to disappear from the photographs: the man reached a certain age and then was gone….. perhaps Gerald’s brother-in-law was involved with the Troubles somehow? Maybe there had been a murder.