It’s been a long time since I’ve reread chunks of a book as I went along, for the poetry of it all. To savour that paragraph again. To wonder at the skill which makes it all seem natural. To admire the beauty of images. To pause in the moment.
There are many glorious moments in Colum McCann’s Transatlantic. Stories of individuals and a family. Stories of flight and landing, and what happens after.
McCann explores issues through stories of people we’ve heard of- airmen Alcock and Brown, abolitionist Fredrick Douglass and (man of enormous patience) George Mitchell– and the generations of another family- Lily, Emily, Lottie and Hannah.
I don’t like flying with 21st century safety and comfort; McCann’s version of the first transatlantic flight (in 1919) is practically heart stopping. What those men did, with their compasses, goggles and polished shoes was astonishing.
Douglass visits Ireland in 1845 and is feted by society, wined and dined. A former slave, a powerful speaker, he experiences no racism. But he witnesses poverty unlike he’d ever seen. He hears whispers of famine, yet sees boats laden with food.
George Mitchell is now 80. He’s a regular human being, with faults and flaws. He’s won all the prizes and medals, but if there is a heaven, I’d to think there’s a special spot reserved for McCann’s version of him.
But this is not the story of a life.
It is the story of lives, knit together,
overlapping in succession, rising
again from grave after grave.
Wendell Berry, from 'Rising', quoted by Colum McCann in TransAtlantic
Each of these men interacted with Lily Duggan or her descendants Emily, Lottie or Hannah. We know Lily and Lottie best- the servant girl who left Ireland, and the young woman who made it her home.
The last part of the novel focusses on Lottie’s daughter Hannah, elderly now, and making her way through not unexpected challenges. And the world moves on.
Believable characters weave their way through historical events. Real, imperfect people make history happen. Little details (ham sandwiches, wet hair) ground this book, while the writing soars.
Can you tell I loved it?