Fly across to a better world

TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99 / Random House, RRP$27, 320 pages

As Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown inch into the Newfoundland air in the converted Vickers bomber that will carry them across the Atlantic, they are watched into the distance by an American mother and daughter.

It is 1919 and for the two Englishmen, freed from the Great War, this attempt at the first nonstop transatlantic flight is like a rebirth, or even a birth: “The creation of a new moment, raw, dynamic, warless.”

TransAtlantic, Colum McCann’s spiritually airborne new novel, weaves together several characters, linked by the journeys they make between North America and Ireland (and vice versa).

His previous book, the 2009 National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin, was a humane extrapolation from Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. In TransAtlantic, McCann again takes real events, with real people, and sends them into the world anew.

In his sixth novel, Dublin-born McCann probes the space between public event and private experience. When Alcock and Brown plunge nose-first into a Galway bog, they find themselves in front of a line of soldiers: “There’s a war going on, he knows. But there’s always some sort of war going on in Ireland, isn’t there? One never knows quite whom or what to trust. Don’t shoot, he thinks. After all this, don’t shoot us.”

Then McCann shifts the tale backwards, to 1845. At a dockside near Dublin, Frederick Douglass, the black American abolitionist, steps down a gangplank. Douglass was an escaped slave whose autobiography became a touchstone of the antislavery movement. This visit to Ireland was part of his speaking tour.

Against a backdrop of the potato famine killing thousands not far from his host’s elegant front door, Douglass describes to those gathered in his honour how he was denied a first-class ticket and forced into steerage on his Atlantic crossing.

Not so the next transatlantic traveller, Senator George Mitchell, leaving Manhattan in 1998 for yet another flight, another stint with his mobile wardrobe and “set of lurking ghost clothes” as he sets off to broker what will become the Good Friday Agreement. Mitchell is in pursuit of a world where there is “room for at least two truths”.

It is the creation of a space for several truths that gives this book its beauty and, sometimes, horror. It is a series of forays into idealism and all that can preserve, or taint, it.

On that 1919 transatlantic flight, Brown carries a letter handed to him by Lottie, the young woman who, with her mother Emily Ehrlich, watched the take-off. These women and their descendants come to the fore later in the book. In Dublin, Douglass notices a housemaid, Lily, who is inspired to make his passage in reverse. Her voyage to the US, where she becomes Lily Ehrlich – and Emily’s mother – is as epic as any. McCann is celebrating the endless human capacity to refashion the bad into something positive.

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