After a brief, mysterious description of a cottage in Northern Ireland, Column McCann’s new novel begins in 1919 in Newfoundland, as pilot Jack Alcock and navigator Arthur Brown prepare to become the first two men to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. Both are veterans of the Great War, and their mission is in large measure to transform planes from instruments of war and destruction into tools of peace and commerce.
No sooner have the pair landed safely, if ungracefully, in an Irish field than the novel abruptly drops the two characters and resets itself in Dublin in 1845. Frederick Douglass is riding the wave of fame from his recently published autobiography. In Ireland to raise funds for anti-slavery causes, he marvels at the relative lack of prejudice shown to him and laments the fate of the country’s poor on the eve of the Great Famine.
Then, just as we have become settled in the mid-nineteenth century, McCann whisks us back to the near-present. Former Senator George Mitchell is preparing to leave his young wife and child in Manhattan to fly to Dublin for peace talks. The section concludes with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and a little more than halfway through its 300 pages, the novel feels as though it has come to a definite, if not entirely satisfying, conclusion.
Fortunately, and this is a sadly uncommon phenomenon in contemporary novels, the best is still to come. The second half of the book focuses on women who only made cameos in the historic narratives of the men. Lily Duggan is a Dublin maid inspired by Frederick Douglass to pursue her own dreams in America. A nurse during the Civil War, she ends up in Missouri, where she gives birth to bookish Emily. Emily becomes a newspaper reporter in turn of the century St. Louis, but her married editor takes the credit for her stories and fathers a child with her. After he dies of a heart attack, she moves to Newfoundland, where, with her daughter, Lottie, a photographer, she covers the flight of Alcock and Brown. Lottie, in turn, appears briefly as an old woman in the George Mitchell segment, and the story of her daughter, Hannah, concludes the book. It is Hannah’s home that was mentioned in the book’s prologue.
McCann, who was born in Dublin and now teaches at Hunter College in New York, clearly cherishes the transatlantic connections of his characters. His descriptions of their varied worlds are rich and compact, as when he depicts Alcock and Brown’s Vickers Vimy about to take flight: “A quick salute. Contact! Alcock opens the throttle and brings both engines to full power. He signals for the wooden chocks to be pulled clear from the wheels. The mechanic leans down, ducks under the wings, armpits the chocks, steps back, throws them away. He raises both arms in the air. A cough of smoke from the engines. The propellers whirl. The Vimy is pointed into the gale.” Those small details—“chocks” rather than “blocks,” the invented verb “armpits,” the vivid sights and sounds—illustrate the care given to each sentence, each moment in the book.
McCann received the National Book Award in 2009 for Let the Great World Spin, so this year’s awards judges may find themselves reluctant to fête his new novel. They shouldn’t be. TransAtlantic is every bit as good his previous novel. Maybe even better.