It is 1919 and Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown are preparing for the very first non-stop transatlantic air voyage. Surrounded by eager Newfoundland locals and journalists, they must bide their time until all the criteria for taking off is correct, every dawn a new hope, each unyielding cloud a disappointment. Among the gathered crowd is journalist Emily Ehrlich and her spirited daughter Lottie, an aspiring photographer, both of whom have settled in the Cochrane Hotel, a long-term temporary home, a genetic trait inherited from the nomadic, unsettled existence of Emily’s Irish mother Lily.
A letter thrust into Brown’s hand by Lottie the night before the fateful flight which will end in Clifden 17 hours later, will remain undelivered, forgotten about in Brown’s breast-pocket, and it is this letter, and what is contained within, that ties the story together over two continents and three centuries.
Mixing real-life figures, like Alcock and Brown, through pivotal times in the complicated, visceral history between Ireland and America, with the narrative of three generations of women descended from an Irish emigrant to the US, TransAtlantic takes a familiar story of desperate hardship as a result of the Famine and the tragedies and triumphs of life in the land of opportunity, and expands it to a complete circle. It’s a story not just of a family and its brushes with greatness but one of a people who are as much a part of history, and shaped by it, as the familiar figures of the day.
McCann’s novel was one of three Irish authors long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize (only one, The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibín has made it to the short-list and it remains to be seen who the winner will be). His remarkable talent for detail and description transcends this book from one of already gripping historical fiction to one that resounds with the age-old Irish tradition of story-telling; the melancholy character in the New World lamenting the old sod; the ardent need of a super-fan to recall every element of his brush with an inspirational hero; the air of an afternoon suddenly turned to night with the account of a family history, its ups and downs, twists and turns, told by a mother to her children now grown enough to hear it.
It’s a searing, epic tale told with the gentle approach of one who knows that a tale can be epic and tragic and important without having to overcome a beast or a monster, but by simply playing the cards you’re dealt with as best you can and tackling any obstacles with tenacity and a strong-will.
Along with the points of view of Lily and her descendants are those from the intrepid aviators, Frederick Douglas and George Mitchell. Douglas was a slave who travelled to Britain and Ireland between 1845 and ’46. During his time in the Isles a fund-raising effort allowed him to return to America a free man and continue his struggle for social reform. A charismatic man and noted orator, while in Ireland he struck up a friendship with Daniel O’Connell and was a prized guest and speaker at dinner parties and meetings on the shared desire for emancipation. His imagined narrative brings him into contact with a star-struck young housemaid, Lily who follows him from Dublin to Cobh and subsequently boards a coffin-ship to New York. Flash-forward to Belfast 1998 and the eve of the Good Friday Agreement, told from the point of view of Senator George Mitchell. Recent history is as influential on the story as more distant memories, and it’s an interesting way of adding strength and flesh to the fictional characters. According to the acknowledgements the author was granted permission by the real Mitchell and his family to use his voice as a background for this part of the book, in which his chairing of the peace negotiations plays second-fiddle to his inner thoughts on the situation, a visit to the home of his driver’s sister, a very human yearning for his young family and a brush with the grand-daughter of Lily at a tennis tournament.
The view from the sidelines is something of a running theme – Douglas takes an unscheduled tour of famine ravaged Ireland on his way to the south, Lily becomes a nurse on the fringes of the American Civil War, her daughter and grand-daughter are present at the takeoff of one of the most influential flights in aviation history, a chance meeting in a reconnaissance mission to England to retrieve the long-forgotten about letter results in re-location to Northern Ireland and an inevitable run-in with The Troubles. This all endeavours to prove that while history is supposedly lies agreed upon it’s not necessarily those who make it that are most affected by the consequent events spawned from it.
McCann is an Irish writer now living in New York, and it’s not a stretch to assume that some of his experiences of life after crossing the Atlantic inspired him to write this story of two nations bound by a shared past. His deft skill in narrative expands it past the obvious point of a historical novel and into the realms of a genre-surpassing poetry. Beginning and ending with a letter; that most treasured of all correspondences, long since been replaced by other, less poignant means of communication, TransAtlantic offers an insight into the meaning behind an heirloom, one which may have more meaning attached to it than it’s actually worth. From a hotel in the east of Canada, to a drawer in Swansea, to Belfast and finally to Dublin the letter lies in many addresses. Echoing, perhaps the outcome of anyone’s journey, it never in the ends up in the address it was intended for, but nonetheless fulfills its quiet destiny.
-Aoife B. Burke
First Published in The Tuam Herald on 17.10.2013