Book review: TransAtlantic reveals tapestry of intimate human histories

Colum McCann weaves fiction with fact and uses unique moments in history in his novel TransAtlantic

TRANSATLANTIC

By Colum McCann

Bloomsbury/Paperback/262 pages/$30.98/Major bookstores/****1/2

There is always room for at least two truths, as Irish writer Colum McCann writes and proves in TransAtlantic.

A tapestry of intimate human histories, it effortlessly transcends time and space to connect parallel or opposing sides. Past and present, black and white, male and female, history and fiction are united, as the story of real-life aviators struggling to break a distance record jostles with that of the fictional journalist recording their feat. An American slave becomes a literary sensation and transforms the life of an illiterate Irish teen.

The first gulf to bridge is that between continents. The book begins with the historic trans-Atlantic flight taken in 1919 by British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown. Their journey from St Johns, Newfoundland, on the Canadian coast, to County Galway, Ireland, was the first such non-stop voyage across the seas. It is beautifully described here as a feat that "took war out of the machine" - they flew a World War I bomber, turning an instrument of destruction into a celebration of human ingenuity.

A letter purportedly ferried by the pilots across to Ireland - they did in fact carry a small bag of mail - becomes one of the several keystones connecting the other stories in the book. Its contents and history are slowly revealed through stories focusing on other characters, including fictional recreations of 19th-century American social reformer Frederick Douglass and present-day politician George Mitchell. Douglass went from slave to feted politician and writer, while Mitchell was instrumental in forging a historic peace pact between Northern Ireland and Britain in the 1990s.

These real-life heroes are seen at pivotal moments in their career. These images are then subtly refracted through four generations of fictional female characters who lived through the same times.

There is Lily Duggan, illiterate housemaid, who is inspired by Douglass to leave Ireland and carve out a new life in America; Lily's daughter Emily, who breaks barriers as a female journalist; and finally grand-daughter Lottie and great-grand-daughter Hannah, whose lives encompass the bloody civil strife in Northern Ireland from the 1960s.

These women's stories are allowed to be richer than those of the men they parallel and, through small acts, they shape history beyond headline moments. It is through these women's experiences that readers see how the world evolves and, also, how it does not. Humanity goes from rickety short-range planes to flying first class across continents, but larger issues of poverty and conflict fail to be resolved, reappearing in spite of technological advances.

TransAtlantic is a breathtaking book, elegantly structured and beautifully written. McCann details the algorithms involved in the task of bathing and sums the flow of an entire life in prose that is at times staccato, but always absorbing.

Comparisons are likely to be made to his 2009 novel, Let The Great World Spin, in which the disparate stories of a host of New Yorkers were inextricably linked together as they watched an acrobat walk a tight-rope across the Twin Towers. The book won him numerous honours, including America's National Book Award and the International Dublin Impac Prize.

TransAtlantic at first glance appears to be based on a similar theme of lives connected by unique moments in history. But Let The Great World Spin was about the universe contained within a city, while TransAtlantic reminds us of the universal themes of our history.

Humanity advances in some ways but appears to retreat in others. Race becomes more fluid a concept, as does nationality, but a mixed marriage today may still break families apart. Wars break out and are slowly forgotten, the scars they leave on one generation failing to make the next more wary of battle.

The lives captured here repeat these themes back and forth, reminiscent of the waves lapping on the shores of two far distant continents, miles apart but still part of the same sea. A book like this gives hope that one day we might bridge the distance between ourselves, though it will take a heroic leap.

If you like this, read: A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks ($24.95, Random House, Books Kinokuniya). It paints a picture of humanity through the lives of five unrelated yet linked characters, from a Victorian-era slumlord to an Italian scientist of the future.

akshitan@sph.com.sg