I've been having a harder time of late, for some reason, finding things that I really want to read. In the last six months, while I've been waiting for George R.R. Martin to get around to finishing book six, I've started way more books than I've finished. So I was happy to find, about a month ago, that Colum McCann had a new novel out. From reading Let the Great World Spin I knew him to be a writer of formidable gifts, and so when I saw Transatlantic at the local B&N I snapped it up.
Transatlantic comes at you in two parts. Book One weaves together three stories based on actual public events: the first transatlantic plane flight from Newfoundland to Ireland by Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown in 1919; Frederick Douglass's extended visit to Ireland in 1845 and '46; and the 1998 peace negotiations brokered between the Irish and the British by American Senator George Mitchell in 1998. McCann imagines his way into the minds and lives of each of the public figures in ways that are informative, entertaining, and entirely convincing.
Given that the events seem to connected only by virtue of the fact that they really took place, in Ireland, the reader is led to wonder, where are we going with this? McCann raises that question in order to be able answer it in Book Two, which focuses on the decidedly non-public but very clearly connected lives of four generations of one family of Irish women, who appear as very minor and apparently unconnected figures in Book One, but whose stories, as they emerge in Book One, have every bit as much drama and weight and resonance as the lives of the more famous people who have gone down in the historical record. In this sense, the book is a work of excavation, of correction, of restitution, paying homage to the lives of ordinary people who turn out to be not so ordinary after all. It's a book that honors the dedication and bravery and capabilities of women who play out the drama of their lives with little hope or expectation of notice or acknowledgement by those in charge of keeping the historical record.
Along the way there is also pleasure to be taken in some remarkable writing. Here, for example, is a passage describing the arrival in New York City of Irish housemaid Lily Duggan, who has been inspired by the visit of Frederick Douglass (in ways he had not intended and might not have wished for) to leave Ireland and seek the freedom in America that she senses she will never have at home. She's seventeen years old and has just spent eight weeks on the ocean:
New York appeared like a cough of blood. The sun was going down behind the warehouses and tall buildings. She saw men on the wharfside in the ruin of themselves. A man barked questions. Name. Age. Birthplace. Speak up, he said. Speak up, goddammit. She was sprayed with lice powder and allowed entry. Lily jostled her way along the waterfront among the stevedores, police officers, beggars. A stench rose up from the oily harbor. The brokenness. The rawness. The filth. She had met only a few Americans in her life—all of them in Webb's house in Dublin—but in New York the men were adherent to shadows. The sloping Negroes were bent and huddled. What freedom, that? Some still wore the branding marks. Scars. Crutches. Slings. She passed by. The women along the docks—white women, black women, mulattos—were rude with lip paint. Their dresses rode above their ankles. It was not at all what Lily wanted the city to be. No fancy carriages pulled by drays. No men in bow ties. No thumping speeches along the waterfront. Just the filthy Irish calling out to her in all manner of disdain. And the silent Germans. The skulking Italians. She wandered amongst them in a haze. Children in rags of unbleached cotton. Dogs on the corner. A mob of pigeons descended from the sky. She moved away from the cries of teamsters and the cadenced call of peddlers. Pulled her shawl around her shoulders. Her heart shuddered in her thin dress. She walked the streets, terrified of thieves. Her shoes were filthy with human waste. She clutched her bonnet tight. Rain fell. Her feet blistered. The streets were a fever. Brick upon brick. Voice upon voice. She passed dimly in lit lofts where women sat sewing. Men in top hats stood in doorways of dry-goods stores. Boys on their knees set cobblestones. A fat man wound a music box. A young girl made paper cutouts. She hurried on. A rat brazened past her on the pavement. She slept in a hotel on Fourth Avenue where the bedbugs concealed themselves beneath a flap of wallpaper. She woke, her first morning in America, to the scream of a horse being beaten with a truncheon outside her window. (163)
It would be a day's work to enumerate the various ways in which this language works to bring Lily and the world she has found herself in alive in our minds. But just for starters, I note the punchy, abbreviated syntax, the density and variety and authority of the imagery, and the way McCann conveys the movement of Lily's thoughts at the same time that we follow the movement of her body.
Like I said, I've been having trouble finishing books. I didn't have any trouble finishing this one.