Fiction - hardcover; Bloomsbury; 320 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
The land masses of Ireland and North America might be separated by the Atlantic Ocean but their histories are strongly linked. Colum McCann explores those connections in his latest novel, TransAtlantic, which was longlisted for last year's Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for this year's Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award (to be announced on 28 May).
The book comprises three main narrative threads at key times in Ireland's history.
The first tells the story of the first non-stop transatlantic aeroplane flight in 1919 by British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown, which landed in a peat bog in County Galway; the second focuses on African-American Frederick Douglass, a former slave turned leader of the abolitionist movement, who visits Ireland for a speaking tour just as the Great Famine begins to take a hold; and the third examines the work of Senator George Mitchell, an American politician, who played a pivotal role in the Northern Ireland Peace Process, specifically the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Linking all these real life characters are three generations of fictional women from the same family: Lily Duggan, the Dublin maid who looks after Frederick Douglass; her daughter, Emily Ehrlich, a Newfoundland reporter who covers the Alcock-Brown flight; and Emily's daughter, Lottie, who emigrates to Northern Ireland, where she lives a rather privileged life.
Combined, the narrative threads span more than 150 years — from 1845 to 2011 — and while there are connections between the storylines and the characters, these are largely superfluous. In many ways, each thread could be read as a standalone story, but McCann chops them up and interleaves them so that the novel, as a whole, occasionally jumps backwards and forwards in time, while the locations — Dublin, New York, Belfast — also shift.
This results in a hugely ambitious novel which shows how — as one character puts it — "the tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again".
McCann has done this kind of multi-layered narrative before. His last novel, Let the Great World Spin, which I reviewed in 2009, focused on a diverse range of characters living in New York at the time Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers in 1974. In many ways it read like a collection of short stories and didn't feel cohesive enough to be a novel (but what would I know — it ended up winning the National Book Award and the Dublin IMPAC International Literary Award).
Perhaps the same could be argued here, but TransAtlantic, just as ambitious in structure and style, is more polished (by which I mean the links between the narrative threads are less obvious) and it reads like a novel — and a properly entertaining and absorbing one at that. Indeed, I'd have a hard time picking out my favourite storyline because I so enjoyed each one — and there was never a moment when I thought, I wish he'd hurry up with this thread so I can get to the next one, which is sometimes a risk when an author dabbles in multiple narratives.
It certainly helps that McCann is a virtuoso when it comes to combining real lives with imagined ones. And he's a master at historical detail, of conjuring just the right atmosphere and mood, so that you feel as if you are right there with the people he's writing about, whether they lived 20 years ago or 100 years ago. Even his prose — and the dialogue — reflects the time period in which each storyline is set: for instance, more formal for the 19th century narrative, a little bit more relaxed and contemporary for the early 21st century narrative.
This all adds up to an accomplished, intricately crafted novel. It's also a hugely moving one — I laughed at certain scenes and wanted to cry at others — and the opening section, which details that record-breaking transatlantic flight, is some of the most exciting and nail-biting fiction I've ever read.
While the rest of this rather grand, sweeping novel might not be quite as tense, it's brimful of passion and pain, hope and humour, love and loss. In striving for impossible goals — whether it be transatlantic flight, abolition of slavery or finding peace after 30 years of violence — McCann's characters, firmly rooted to the past, show us how we should always look to the future.