TransAtlantic is a novel with a generous reach, but a hidden purpose. This is what makes it a powerful reading experience. I am calling it an experience because it's a novel you will read slowly, enjoying its design on all levels: structure, character, sentence. McCann is an unusual storyteller because he trusts that the reader will meet him halfway; this means that for the purpose of creating mystery and suspense he keeps the book's intentions hidden until close to the end. It's a withholding that builds momentum because the reader has to wait to see the connections between disparate characters and time periods. It's rare to find an author willing to make this gamble on the reader's patience, especially in this era of publishing where the marketplace is full of novels that announce their intentions in the first few pages. But his previous novel, Let the Great World Spin, won the national book award, so McCann was certainly well-positioned for taking a risk.
Like Let the Great World Spin, TransAtlantic is composed of long chapters that appear, at first, to be separate and discreet, each one introducing a new character. The difference is that in Let the Great World Spin, all of the characters live in New York City in the twenty first century while in TransAtlantic the narrative is more restless. It jumps through the years from 1919 to 2012, skipping between Ireland, Newfoundland, and Missouri as characters travel back and forth across the Atlantic. Some of the characters are fictional and some are actual personages, and all of them are deeply compelling.
In the first chapter we meet Alcock and Brown, the men who made the first transatlantic flight in a two-seater, open cockpit, converted WW I bomber. In chapter two, we meet Frederick Douglass, the nineteenth century writer and orator who crossed the Atlantic multiple times to speak about the lives of enslaved Africans in the southern U.S., enlisting support for the cause of Abolition. There is a chapter devoted to Senator George Mitchell, the man appointed by Clinton as the Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, who over two years of negotiations, was finally able to pass the Good Friday Accords, an agreement that began the peace process that ended sectarian violence.
Among the fictional characters woven throughout these different narratives is a timid Irish maid named Lily, a survivor of poverty and abuse, who is inspired by Douglass' presence in the household where she works to make a clean break from servitude by purchasing passage aboard a ship bound for the U.S. Outlasting disease and hunger in the steerage compartment and then, on land, outlasting the horrors of caring for wounded civil war soldiers, she marries a good, hard-working man and has a large family. Decades later, her daughter and granddaughter make the crossing back to Ireland where her great granddaughter will live through the Troubles.
Throughout the novel, McCann lets us wonder what links one character to another. Was there more besides inspiration and a long-distance infatuation between Lily and Frederick Douglass? And what's the connection between Lily's progeny and George Mitchell? McCann trusts his readers to be patient. And we are, because in each section we are privy to the complications in the character's rich inner and outer life. We witness their most private thoughts, from moments of shame and terror to occasional happiness. We see Emily, Lily's only daughter, rise above the patronizing actions of the man who runs the newspaper where she first works as a journalist, and then we see her at a moment that is free from political tension of any kind as she sets pen to paper:
"Emily Ehrlich survived not by theory or formula, but by certain moments of ease when she felt herself at full tilt, a sprinting, hurdling joy. Lost in a small excelsis" (192).
It's rare to see this kind of free-form, bubbling happiness expressed so directly, and as we read on, the fragmented sentences describing her writing process (I've italicized them) invite our participation:
"The best moments were when her mind seemed to implode. It made a shambles of time. All the light disappeared. The infinity of her inkwell. A quiver of dark at the end of the pen.
Hours of loss and escape. Insanity and failure"(192).
Because we must finish the thoughts, something we do quickly, without even noticing, the narrative distance closes, pulling us into the character's orbit. It's a technique McCann uses often and to great effect.
Each chapter is narrated in the third person, but it is the unexpected first person voice of Lily's great granddaughter, Hannah, that closes the novel. Through a mysterious letter in Hannah's possession, she sees the overall shape of all the events the novel brings together, each of which, in some way, touches her life: "The tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments…" (252).
This coming to daylight for the reader, at the very end, is a glorious moment. For this reader there were spontaneous tears, a glow of happiness.That emotional reaction is the cumulative effect of the narrative's ongoing reticence about its purpose.
That reticence allowed me to become fully involved, waiting, watching, sifting the clues. Early in the novel, Lily's granddaughter, Hannah's mother, stops Brown on the stairs in a hotel on the morning of his harrowing flight, and hands him a letter written by her mother. What is that about, I wondered. Four pages later I learned that on Alcock and Brown's transatlantic flight there was a bag of mail travelling by air for the first time from one continent to another. The letter doesn't get opened until a hundred years later, and what it contains is the mystery of this last section.
It is human impatience that demands answers, solutions, and summaries that deliver the final meaning. But McCann shows us, over and over, that waiting will reveal more because there is never only one simple meaning. The actions that people take, more than the words they speak, are where the significance lies.
Lily, who knew Frederick Douglass lifted weights in the privacy of his room at the Jennings household where she was a maid, wanted to feel the freedom and independence that he spoke about. That desire takes her to a new land where her strength is tested again and again as the years slip by. Even when her husband and two of her sons are crushed to death by huge blocks of falling ice, Lily doesn't give up. She knows she will have to run the ice business herself with the help of her remaining children. "She woke Tomas first, then the other two. They stepped out into the night, down towards the barn, their breath making cloudshapes against the dark. 'First of all, we'll get the wagons ready,' she said. 'Make sure the horses are fed'" (182). It's the same determination we see in Alcock and Brown, Frederick Douglass, and George Mitchell, all of them facing terrible odds but persevering.
I wouldn't have read TransAtlantic if I hadn't walked down a street in my Brooklyn neighborhood one spring morning. Someone had placed it out on the sidewalk with some other books for people to take. On the flyleaf, the previous reader had made a list of the characters that appear in each chapter. It seems he or she was as intrigued by the novel's design as I was. It's hard to imagine how it could have ended up on the sidewalk if the reader had been that involved, but who knows. In any case, I was the lucky recipient.
McCann, Colum. TransAtlantic. New York: Random House, 2013.