How the past informs the present. How the present cannot help but be informed by the past. Large topics made specific and compelling. The epigraph for Colum McCann's "TransAtlantic" is a quotation from Eduardo Galeano that ends "... the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is."
This is a fitting start for a wonderful novel of depth and detail that crosses and recrosses the great ocean and goes back and forth among generations. Readers of "Let the Great World Spin" will not be surprised by Mr. McCann's dexterity with braided stories and a large cast of characters who affect each other in surprising but inevitable ways.
By Colum McCann
Random House ($27).
Although it spans 1845 to 2012, the narrative doesn't unfold chronologically but spirals and shifts like a constellation made up of stars from different galaxies. We meet famous men and women as well as those who have never lived but are very alive on the page.
"TransAtlantic" takes off in 1919 with two airmen, veterans of World War I, attempting to make the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic for fame and the 10,000 pounds promised by The Daily Mail. Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown were real, as was their accomplishment, but Mr. McCann imagines and describes their flight in such rich detail and with such a pulse of danger that the reader is with them in their open cockpit, not sure if they'll make it. It is as terrifying as it is thrilling.
A bag of letters crosses the Atlantic with them. One letter, not in the bag but in Brown's pocket, will be a thread in the interconnected stories. The novel is bright with such endowed objects, carrying meaning and connecting the characters with place and with each other.
In a time shift, Frederick Douglass travels to Ireland in 1845 to gather support for the abolitionist movement. It is stunning to know that Douglass was a hero in Ireland in the time of the famine. In another shift, 150-plus years later, George Mitchell, the peacemaker, crosses the Atlantic again and again, hoping to find a path away from the old grudges and murderous retribution of "the Troubles." Both men give themselves to just causes, but the novel gives full account of the personal toll that commitment takes.
There is nothing excessive in the way Mr. McCann shapes a sentence. Again and again, the language startles and is just right, having the economy and precision of poetry:
"The stolen gun never resurfaced. Who knows what history it served, or whether it was just thrown away and buried down in the bog to join the ancient elk, the bones, the butter?"
In a one-page prologue, noted as the year 2012, we meet "she" in a cottage at the edge of a lough in Ireland. Up early, she listens to the sound of oyster shells dropped on the roof by gulls off the lake. It is a beguiling beginning, and the rest of the book is filled with interlocking lives and incident that will in the end come back to this cottage. Each part of the story is told in the third person until the final time shift where the narrator speaks in the first person, bringing us round to the present.
It would be a shame to spoil the surprising and compelling way the story unfolds, but it is no spoiler to say that the women in this novel carry its sadness and its hope. They are the ones who lose sons and call for peace against all odds. Four generations of women. Lily, the Irish servant inspired by Frederick Douglass, makes her way to America and a dream of freedom. Lily's daughter Emily survives exploitation and cruelty to put her stamp on the world as a writer. Emily's daughter Lottie finds her way back to Ireland. And Lottie's daughter Hannah tries desperately to preserve what is most dear.
It's not that you can't put this novel down, but rather that you don't want it to end. Colum McCann is a masterful writer, and this "story of lives knit together" is at once so satisfying and so tantalizing that you want to read it once more just for the pleasure of the fabric.
"We return to the lives of those who have gone before us," says the character Hannah, "a perplexing mobius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves."
Mary Rawson is an actor and an acting teacher at Point Park University (firstname.lastname@example.org).