Shut out the lights on the world below
The past, as they say, is most often written by those who are victorious. At first blush, by fictionalizing a number of historically consequential voices and weaving them into his narrative, National Book Award winning author Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin) appears to buying into the this notion with much verve. However the further that his Man Booker Prize longlisted novel TransAtlantic progresses, the more clear it becomes that McCann is only interested in these prominent figures as a set of high profile glue sticks whose value lies in their ability to help paste together a much more ambitious, socially conscious narrative detailing the plight of Northern Ireland and the unheard voices of the common folk who endured throughout these turbulent years. The resulting story is extremely poignant at times, yet woefully stodgy at others.
It begins in 1919 with the tale of Alcock and Brown. Armed with only a mail-order plane and a dream of being prize winners, this pair of pilots was the first to successfully complete a non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean in less than 72 hours. McCann introduces a fictional news reporter and her photographer daughter who ask the pair to carry a letter with them on the flight.
The story then shifts backwards in time to the 1800s where the focus becomes that of writer and orator Frederick Douglas, a man who rose to prominence as a flesh and blood counter-argument to the idea that slaves were in no way wise enough to carry themselves as independently functioning citizens of the United States. This piece of the narrative finds Douglas on a book tour across Ireland and it’s during this time period that McCann introduces a fictional housemaid and her attempts, against the odds, to secure passage to America.
Finally, but no less importantly, US Senator George Mitchell, Special Envoy to Northern Ireland under the Clinton administration is introduced and crosses paths with the now aged photographer from 1919.
All of these women, four generations of them to be exact, are of course connected by bonds both familial and geographical and each are affected by the unrest that occurs in Northern Ireland during the course of their lifetime in profoundly different ways. What makes the novel work, and where McCann’s strength as a storyteller most certainly shines, is in the clear division of the sexes as two separate sides of the same coin. They’re both ultimately seeking the same end result, but implement very different strategies to achieve their desired goals.
For the men, bluster seems to be the order of the day. Who can shout the loudest, who can shoot the farthest, and who can affect the most change and leave his mark upon the country, upon the people, and upon the world. The women are much more subdued and thoughtful in their approach, but no less determined. Forced to silently persevere in the background as events unfold around them, they maximize their abilities to bring about change wherever possible, and lament every loss of life along the way.
This push and pull of the sexes combined with a melding of historical fact and fiction produces curiously mixed results. On the one hand McCann clearly achieves that which he sets out to accomplish, chiefly to shed light upon how Ireland’s struggle to shed its past correlates to mankind’s inability to learn from its unending mistakes, yet on the other hand he does so by sacrificing the gift of unpredictability. From the get go each of his characters feel set on a predetermined path. As each of them follow their script through to its eventual conclusion it becomes sadly obvious that the storytelling constraints imposed are just far too great for TransAtlantic to ever truly take flight.
It’s an interesting experiment, but those looking for a better balance between social awareness and storytelling would perhaps be better served by booking passage elsewhere.
By Colum McCann