The Evening Game's Modern Classics: Colum McCann's 'Transatlanticism'
Spanning three centuries and two continents, Transatlantic is a dazzling meditation on the links across time and place, a series of interwoven stories on how people influence and inspire strangers they only meet fleetingly, the enduring pull of his homeland Ireland and the ongoing fallout of the Northern Ireland peace process.
The first and most action-packed vignette is a vivid imagining of the first non-stop Transatlantic flight in 1919. With the lyricism and economy of a poet, McCann sketches out the personalities of the two men: Alcock a dashing, fearless figure who craves anonymity and the more reserved Brown, who enjoys quantifying things and sees the world in scientific terms. Alcock was a prisoner of war and Brown walks with a stick and already seemed old at thirty-two. Both are aching for a new start and find it in the flight to Ireland.
In faultless, rhythmic prose, the bracing cold, physical exertion and white knuckle fear of the journey are conjured up, as well as the vertiginous possibility and raw excitement their journey generated. Watching the preparations for the flight with interest are Emily, a reporter who asks nothing but writes insightfully about the pair and Lottie, her daughter, who gives Brown a letter to take with him.
In the story's second narrative, the great social reformer Frederick Douglass arrives in Ireland where he is to give a series of lectures denouncing slavery. His oratory is warmly received, but he initially feels ill at ease with his surrounds and has a tense relationship with Mr. Webb, his publisher and the organiser of his speaking tour. He senses an energy of doom amongst the Irish as the potato famine descends, but nonetheless finds himself fascinated by the country. His speeches have a particularly profound effect on maid Lily, who is so inspired she leaves for a new life in America.
Later, the senator George Mitchell arrives in Northern Ireland to take part in peace talks. This is another remarkable piece of literary ventriloquism, imagining the emotional tumult beneath a seemingly endless shuffle of meetings, hotels, airports and late-night phone calls as the American's work becomes a whir of formality and politeness. McCann's focus here is not on the details of the negotiations, but rather Mitchell's motivation for getting involved in them. Having given up his quiet, semi-retired life with his young child and risked his impeccable reputation, Mitchell found himself drawn into the internecine feud by his “fascination with the impossible” and in quieter moments, finds himself reflecting on the mysteries of Belfast, a place where “all their lovesongs are sad and their warsongs happy”.
In book two, we find Lily now living in America and running a business selling ice. She and her daughter again cross paths with the aging Douglass, now an advocate for womens' suffrage. The lives of Emily and Lottie also circle back to the past as they travel England on the tenth anniversary of Brown and Alcock's historic flight, determined to track down the unsent letter. Finally, Hannah finds herself reflecting on her life in Dublin, 2011, as the city readies itself for a visit from Barack Obama.
Those won over by the critical and popular hit Let the Great World Spin will again find much to admire here. McCann displays a finely tuned antenna for the subtle details of life: the mist of morning fog, the lilt of Irish voices, the way New York cabs become a blur of colour in the rain. Collectively, these small details build into something quite overwhelming: a sweeping, symphonic marvel full of life and charm.