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I took a break from my usual fare of fiction and philosophy about the darker reaches of human nature to take up a novel pressed on me by one of my book-a-week brothers:  Colum McCann‘s TransAtlantic.  ‘You have to read it!’ he exclaimed.  Frankly, I was not enthusiastic.  Something about people crossing from Ireland to America, at different times, not even a famine Irish among them to connect to our own ancestors’ long ago crossing.  Time is short and we have to make our reading decisions.  But he’s a good judge of things and the exchange of books is important between friends.  I opened it. 

After two chapters I was still not convinced.  A story about a Newfoundland to Galway flight in 1919, that seemed to stop, with the plane, in an Irish bog, followed by a chapter, unaccountably, 74 years earlier, which was an account of Frederick Douglass coming to Ireland to be feted by the well-to-do anti-slavery Irish in the year the Great Hunger began to reap cadavers by the tens of thousands.  Interesting by itself, but an awful lot of missing material, I thought, having steeped myself in that history. Two interesting beads, but what was the thread?  OK, one more chapter.

George Mitchell, the US Senator,  appears in Belfast, trying to forge what became The Good Friday Agreement of 1998.  Curiouser and curiouser.  This is the oddest collection of stories I have ever read, I thought.  But one thing.  A name appeared which I recognized from an earlier chapter, but couldn’t  quite place.  Hmmm.  This might be interesting

And so TransAtlantic began to catch me in its nets. Eight chapters taking place over 167 years containing dozens of characters all hung among the branches of a family-tree of women. Sitting with one generation on her branch the reader can peer back through the leaves to another. ‘Is that she?’  “Whose name is that?’ ‘Wait, who is her mother?’  Emily, and Lottie and Lilly and Hannah. The younger carrying memories of the older, a grandmother appearing with a grandson — and who is the mother? And a mysterious letter we first hear of in relation to the flight of 1919, but which might point back to the famine visit of Frederick Douglas, which is still being carried, in 2012, to an African-Irish scholar of Douglass.

A mystery without a murder.  A novel that moves from slow and puzzling to practically turning its pages in your hands but without ever calling on adrenaline surges of anxiety and dread.  [Well the flight of the Vickers Vimy, the first non-stop transatlantic flight, at 12,000 feet in heavy clouds and instruments breaking down, held some anxious moments.]

How does McCann do it?  Even the invention of and conception of the women, in their times and relationships,  in their changing geography would be a challenge, much less to begin in what seems unrelated to then bring them all together fully related over time. All the while sparking with language that makes one stop and close the pages to absorb a play of words entirely fresh and unique but which does not distract from the story itself. Here is just one example from each chapter. There are hundreds more. [The years in parenthesis are the chapter heads.]

“She pauses is if she has just propped a number of stray words on the tip of her tongue, odd little things with no flow to them at all, no way to get them out.  She stands, balancing them, wondering if they will topple.” (1919)

“The crowds came, eager, hatted, earnest.  A balloon of perfume about them.” (1845)

“Two lovely beaming smiles from the front desk.  Girls in silk scarves of red, white and blue.  Their perfect English accents.  As if serving all their vowels on a fine set of tongs.”  (1998)

“The wheels screeched.  The line of wagons stretched down the path, into the trees.  The trees themselves stretched off into the war.” (1863)

“She was twenty-seven, with an air of earliness about her: she seemed to arrive ahead of herself.” (1929)

“It’s always a temptation to see how the world has frothed up during the night:  what riot took place across town, what election was rigged, what poor barman had to broom up the bodies.”  (1978)

“The three of us sat at his kitchen table…drinking tea, the past banging its flint against the present.” (2012)

We are present in a field hospital of the American Civil War, we learn about ice-farming, ride through Belfast under British lock-down, fly across the Atlantic, watch Frederick Douglass prepare himself to speak.  Each imagining is expertly drawn; each could stand alone as a story or sketch.  It is in their relation to each other, slowly discovered, thatwe find the real pleasure.

The more patient the reader, the more relations will be seen.  In an early chapter, though later in years, Lottie, in a wheel-chair, jests with George Mitchell about his tennis stroke.  Later in the book, earlier in the years, we come upon Thomas, Lottie’s grandson playing tennis under her watchful eye.   He dies in the chapter.  What new meaning  might Lottie’s words to Mitchell, ten years later, 150 pages earlier, have?  We have to go back and look.

The letter carried by Emily, now an old woman, hoping it has monetary value, in her time of eviction and trouble, is the final mystery of the several that occupy us through out the book.  It ‘s solution comes in the most natural of ways — unexpected but not shocking, the final tying off of the first thread seen of this very remarkable book.

I’ll press it on a friend as it was pressed on me. 

Now, it’s time to return to J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle , and have a go at  Karl Jaspers and Hanna Arendt whose thought helped him grapple with the disturbances of his war, WW II, its meaning and its forgetting … unless the less disturbing memories of TransAtlantic entice me into his earlier, and much acclaimed book,  Let The Great World Spin. If not, I’ll certainly hold it as a reward after darker reading.