By Colum McCann
“When you get up to sit with God or the devil you can curse them both for me. This god-awful manufacture of blood and bone. This fool-soaked war that makes a loneliness of mothers.” The war in question is the Irish conflict. It is a conflict that has been documented well in English literature. Yet it is one that is unfamiliar to me in a very fundamental way - and I have to go back to google to pick up the bits and pieces of that history that McCann litters his Booker-nominated novel with. Which is probably the reason the book does not grab me the way his Let the Great World Spin did.
Lily, Emily, Lotty, Hannah - four generations of women who live through love, loss, pain, loneliness, joy. This is their story, set against the larger political backdrop of Irish (and North American) history. The Irish famine, the civil war in America, the waves of Irish immigration to America, the conflict in Northern Ireland, the peace process… it’s all in there. Through it all, the first non-stop transatlantic flight by Alcock and Brown, an event, like the wire walk in McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, proves to be the pivot to the story.
Lily is the Irish maid, transfixed by Frederick Douglass, the American abolitionist and orator, who makes the tough passage to America. She loses a son in the civil war and two more in an accident. Her daughter Emily is a woman ahead of her times; she has a child out of wedlock, and works as a journalist and writer, making a name for herself in her small community in Newfoundland. Emily and her daughter Lottie are the ones who see off Alcock and Brown on their transatlantic flight, even giving them a letter to deliver to Lily’s saviour in Ireland - a letter that proves historic, as it is one of the few that goes across the Atlantic on that first flight. Lottie returns to Ireland to settle with a Cork linen merchant. But she too cannot escape the sorrow of loss as she loses her only grandchild to the conflict in Ireland. The last section is Hannah’s - Lottie’s daughter as she grows old in Ireland, mourning her son, and trying to cope with the loss of everything she has held dear.
There are long sections where McCann recreates historical moments - Frederick Douglass’s sojourn in Ireland, Alcock and Brown’s actual flight, George Mitchell’s role in the Irish peace process. They are long winded and sometimes distracting, especially for someone like me who is not clued in to the history. Yet McCann’s language has a strange, powerful hold that drags you along these back-and-forths across time and place. And I was forced to finish a book that I was at times willing to give up on.
Transatlantic did not grip me the way Let the Great World Spin did. Yet the story of 4 generations of women does have something to say to you - of how women have always borne the brunt of men’s conflicts, that nothing ultimately can cure the loss of a child, that however hard your grief is to bear, life must and will go on, filled with everyday beauty that one can see if only one is willing to stop and see it.