She moves across the sky, gliding below thick white clouds as if navigating toward a dream — dipping, diving, deep and tight in a showcase of illumination. She may be a World War I Vickers Vimy aircraft, but in Colum McCann’s latest novel, “TransAtlantic,” everything comes alive.
In stalwart fashion, McCann darts readers across two continents as we meet a handful of prominent characters of differing backgrounds and beliefs. While we are introduced to both authentic figures, such as Frederick Douglass and George J. Mitchell, as well as fictional, McCann seamlessly channels their accounts as he travels symmetrically, stemming centuries, from 1845 to present.
In 1919, World War I has ended, but its harrowing past still lingers. Historical aviators John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, who both served during the war, are preparing to venture from Newfoundland to Ireland. While John and Arthur are as different as navigating north to south, their love for flying unites them. It is during these passages that McCann offers some of the most moving of details, down to the very mechanics of the plane becoming one with the human body — an interconnectedness that becomes a major theme of the work.
“The noise rolls through their bodies. At times they make a music of it — a rhythm that conducts itself from head to chest to toes — but then they are lifted from the rhythm, and it becomes pure noise again. They are well aware that they can go deaf on the flight and that the roar could lodge itself inside them forever, their bodies carrying it like human gramophones, so that if they ever make it to the other side they will still, always, somehow hear it.”
Four generations of women, the compassionate and matriarchal protagonist, Lily Duggan; her daughter and journalist, Emily Ehrlich; her teenage granddaughter and photographer, Lottie Ehrlich; and her great granddaughter, Hannah Carson, all supplement John and Arthur’s narratives, becoming a part of their journey.
Readers then fast-forward to Ireland in 1998. George Mitchell, former Senator from Maine who also served as a United States Special Envoy of Northern Ireland during the Belfast “Good Friday” Peace Agreement, helps to administer the pact to bring about civil and religious rights throughout the community.
Overall, “TransAtlantic” preserves its theme of interconnection throughout, bridging past and present in a journey similar to John and Arthur’s extraordinary flight. The novel takes readers from a momentous lift-off to a spellbinding and circular finale, one with a new world ahead.
‘TransAtlantic’ by Colum McCann Rating: W W W W W