I finally got around to reading Colum McCann’s elegiac Let the Great World Spin earlier this summer, and I loved it. Needless to say, I was delighted to see that he had a new book coming out that same month. ‘Spin’ was a novel of character vignettes loosely tied around 1974’s historic high-wire crossing of the Twin Towers by Philippe Petit. Using this real-life event as an anchor of sorts, McCann created a wonderful novel of multiple perspectives dedicated to the idea that the most disparate of lives are intertwined in surprising and reassuring ways – often across space, class, and even time.
‘Transatlantic’ sticks to much the same principle – indeed, McCann doesn’t stray far from the basic structure or tone of ‘Spin’ here, but he does surpass the earlier novel in both lyrical beauty and panoramic scope. Using not one, but three, historical figures to anchor stories set in three distinctly different eras of history on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, McCann tells a family history that is not so much about Frederick Douglass’ tour of Ireland, George Mitchell’s brokering of peace, or John Alcock and Alfred Brown’s first-ever transatlantic flight as it is about the three women who, on the periphery of the historic events of their era, grappled with the hopes and disappointments of life.
Like the symbolic transatlantic flight that begins the novel, these women’s lives bridge the gap between eras and generations, showing that who we are today is imperceptibly but irrevocably altered by those who came before. McCann also deftly interposes differences in world view and reality. When confronted with the precursor of famine in the Irish countryside, Douglass ponders how such terrible poverty the likes of which he had never even seen in slavery could thrive in a free society. Likewise, Lily Duggan, an Irish housemaid moved by Douglass’ talk of emancipation is so stirred to flee her life of servitude and seek freedom in Douglass’ America – only to go unrecognized and unacknowledged by Douglass when he meets her again as an independent woman. For all his talk of the human condition and universal worth, he can see Lily only as a servant, and struggles to contextualize injustice that falls outside his own experience.
This is a novel that will cause pause for reflection – on the subtle ways in which our own lives have been influenced by the stories of past generations, on how their future direction relies upon luck and circumstance, and on the linkages that bind one another – and history – together.