Colum McCann’s new novel, ‘TransAtlantic,’ mixes history, fiction

“TransAtlantic” by Colum McCann (Random House, 304 pages, $27)

McCann, whose novel “Let the Great World Spin” won the 2009 National Book Award, engages us once again with a multi-narrative work that is more ambitious, if not quite as marvelous, as his previous novel. Nevertheless, it is an arresting, lyrical work that is well worth reading and savoring.

“TransAtlantic,” his sixth novel, mixes historical figures with fictional characters over several centuries, all with a connection to Ireland and the United States. It distills the reverberations of history in our lives.

He begins in Newfoundland in 1919, when two aviators, Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown, prepare to make the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic, to Ireland. McCann captures their love of flying and their strong connection to each other: “… they have long ago mapped their minds onto each other’s movements: every twitch a way of speaking, the absence of voice a presence of body.” They both see the point of flight being “to get rid of oneself. That was reason enough to fly.”

The next chapter is set in 1845-46 in Dublin, where Frederick Douglass has arrived on his international lecture tour after publishing his narrative of growing up in slavery. He finds welcome and sympathy for abolition but also encounters widespread famine among the Irish people.

The third chapter, set in 1998, follows Senator George Mitchell as he works on bringing bitter sides in Ireland together for peace talks. After an agreement is reached, Mitchell understands that peace will only come if enough people want it. “Generations of mothers will understand this,” he muses.

Halfway through the novel, McCann switches from stories of historical figures to stories of fictional women who had some connection to Alcock, Brown, Douglass and Mitchell. This is where the novel comes alive.

McCann opens Book Two with a vivid description of Lily Duggan tending to wounded soldiers on a Civil War battlefield. Lily, who was a maid in the house where Frederick Douglass was staying in Dublin, is a widowed mother who has followed her young son when he enlists. After he dies, she remarks on “this fool-soaked war that makes a loneliness of mothers.”

Lily later marries and has five sons and one daughter, Emily, who is the subject of the second chapter in Book Two. She, a writer, and her daughter, Lottie, a photographer, report on the flight of Alcock and Brown in 1919. In 1929, they travel to Ireland to visit Brown (Alcock has died).

Brown confesses that he failed to mail a letter written years earlier by Lily that Emily had given him to carry on his transatlantic flight. This letter, unopened, becomes a symbol in the novel for the history that lives within us, even if unacknowledged.

The third chapter in Book Two belongs to Lottie, who has married, has a daughter and a grandson, and loves to play tennis. Back in Chapter Three, she was the elderly woman in a wheelchair who played tennis and told Senator Mitchell that he had an “awful backhand.” Now, in 1978, she visits her daughter and son-in-law at their cottage on a lake, where a tragedy soon occurs.

Finally, in Book Three, we are with Hannah, Lottie’s daughter, now alone with her dog in 2011. About to lose her cottage to the creditors, she tries to find a buyer for the unopened letter she has inherited. Despite the implausibility of such a letter remaining unopened for 92 years, we as readers want to know what it says. One of its sentences sums up the theme of this absorbing novel: “We seldom know what echo our actions will find, but our stories will most certainly outlast us.”

Even if not quite the feat of “Let the Great World Spin,” a rare gem, “TransAtlantic” is really good. McCann has a deft touch with language, whether describing a beach “penciled by a series of soft sand ripples” or capturing the diction of the Irish: “Sure the two of us are deaf anyway.”

What moves the narrative, finally, is the voice of women, those whose lives run parallel, in the shadows, beside the historical figures we think move history. We learn that “the ordinary people own [history] now.”

When Hannah opens that letter she realizes a lesson this book teaches: “What mystery we lose when we figure things out, but perhaps there’s mystery in the obvious, too.”