TRANSATLANTIC. By Colum McCann. Random House. 320 pages. $27.
Colum McCann’s sixth novel, “TransAtlantic,” opens with a vignette depicting a cottage on an Irish seascape.
In the morning sky, a flight of gulls shuck oysters by dropping them onto the roof, before dipping to the open shells to satisfy their hunger. The scene introduces the opposing motifs that will balance and shape the novel: hunger and flight.
The grace and violence of the ravenous gulls foreshadow the brave, often desperate antics of four generations of men and women whose hunger — whether physical, emotional, or aesthetic — keeps them aloft in a world that threatens to maroon them.
“TransAtlantic,” which illustrates the intricate ways in which lives connect and resonate into the future, contains echoes of McCann’s 2009 National Book Award winning novel, “Let the Great World Spin.” Yet it is an even more daring undertaking. Whereas the earlier novel takes place primarily on the day of Philippe Petite’s famous World Trade Center tightrope walk, the carefully woven plot of “TransAtlantic” spans 167 years. Like its predecessor, however, “TransAtlantic” bears witness to the power of courage and resilience in the wake of horror and hopelessness.
As the “acrobatic” gulls of the opening pages fly off warlike “in squadrons of blue and grey” toward the Atlantic, they anticipate the challenging journeys of the book’s four major male heroes, whose interior and exterior lives are the focus of the first third of the novel: John Alcock and Arthur Brown, the World War I veterans who piloted the first transatlantic flight, arriving in Ireland from Newfoundland in 1919; Frederick Douglass, who sailed to Ireland to promote abolition in the mid-1840s; and U.S. Senator George Mitchell, who helped negotiate the 1998 peace treaty in Northern Ireland.
Though the impact of these four historic figures pervades the novel, McCann switches his focus in the final two thirds of the story, unfolding a tale of four fictional heroines whose lives subtly, yet profoundly, intersect and often mirror those of their famous male counterparts.
That “TransAtlantic” is a story of ruin and resurrection is suggested in the opening sentence of Book One, which introduces the plane Alcock and Brown will fly across the Atlantic.
“It was a modified bomber, a Vickers Vimy.” Brown is pleased by the idea of “taking the war out of the plane, stripping the whole thing of its penchant for carnage.”
Analogously, in the next chapter, a pair of barbells that Frederick Douglass lugs with him to Ireland to maintain his fitness regimen, have been forged out of melted down slave shackles.
All four men acknowledge that life has offered them a second chance, an opportunity to reinvent themselves.
As the world watches, each navigates his course with a poise and valor that recalls the titanic tightrope walker who struts and dances across the pages of “Let the Great World Spin.”
It is, in fact, a titan, whose name is invoked at one point by Douglass, that lends the novel its title: Atlas, the mythical giant who shouldered the burden of the earth itself.
But among the novel’s most stalwart and resilient characters is its most physically petite. Inspired by the example of Douglass, Lily Dugan, an abused teenager who works as a servant for the family of Douglass’s Irish publisher, walks, and then sails, away in the midst of the raging Irish famine, to try and carve her own identity in America.
By displacing his male heroes to focus on the fictional lives of Lily and her equally selfless, spirited female descendents, McCann underscores a an increasingly evident truth: the fundamental role of women in history has been obscured by the spotlight afforded to great men.
“They never fought the wars, but they suffered them, blood and bone,” Senator Mitchell muses.
The women in “TransAtlantic” shape their environment with the force and anonymity of the wind, which itself acts as a character in the book, thrashing and smoothing its way along both sides of the Atlantic.
McCann imparts his engaging tale of the human capacity for both destruction and re-creation with the measured, poetic phrasing that has distinguished his fiction for two decades. He evokes heart-wrenching images of the ignominy of famine, slavery and war.
Yet he offsets these scenes with unforgettable passages that convey the joy of the human spirit in flight, alive to its own potential and to “the miracle of the actual.”
Reviewer John Cusatis teaches English at the Charleston County School of the Arts.