While Philippe Petit stepped lightly above “Let the Great World Spin” — he was never even named — the historical figures in “TransAtlantic” come to us in full-bodied portraits elegantly dressed with biographical detail. In the novel’s first part, we meet Arthur Brown, the World War I flier who, along with John Alcock, made the first transatlantic flight in 1919. (Charles Lindbergh siphoned off their fame when he made the first solo flight eight years later.) The journey from Newfoundland to Ireland in a Vickers Vimy bomber is an adventure fraught with drama: The men are at constant risk of freezing to death even if they don’t spiral down into the Atlantic; navigating through the clouds is part science, part prayer; parts of the plane start to break and then break off. But in McCann’s carefully modulated voice, these elements of death-defying risk are muted to let quirky details of the story emerge: “They put razor blades in their flight kits,” he writes, “for when they landed: they wanted to make sure that if they were to arrive in Ireland, they would be fresh, decently shaved, presentable members of Empire.”
That approach to reclaimed moments of history continues in the next chapter, which takes us back to 1845, when Frederick Douglass lectured in Ireland on the horrors of slavery. McCann presents this largely ignored episode of Douglass’s life with tremendous psychological sensitivity as the escaped slave realizes he doesn’t like his judgmental Quaker host very much at all. But that discomfort is dwarfed by a greater dilemma: Shocked by the ravages of the Potato Famine, should Douglass risk losing British support for abolition by objecting to the Crown’s mistreatment of Ireland? “The politics still confounded him,” McCann writes. “It was to his own known cause that he had to remain entirely loyal. Three million voices. He could not speak out against those who had brought him here as a visitor. There was only so much he could take upon himself.”
Such delicate diplomacy is the theme of the final famous-man chapter, which follows former senator George Mitchell, called upon to mediate the Northern Ireland peace process that culminated in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. For this chapter alone, McCann had the benefit of consulting with his subject, but here, more than ever, he avoids the dramatic elements. IRA bombings and government assassinations are kept off in the margins. We see only “the old hieroglyphics of violence” and snatches of the byzantine negotiations among various parties — all aggrieved, all deadly. Like Douglass, Mitchell is a reluctant but wise celebrity, hyperaware of his image. “He wanted to make himself the smallest continent possible,” McCann writes. Every word he speaks, how he holds his shoulders, what color tie he chooses — it’s all deliberate in the exhausting calculus of these peace negotiations carried out in the shadow of 800 years of anger in front of a thousand journalists.
The second part of the novel shifts registries from famous historical men to obscure fictional women. That’s a risk, of course. Can the story of the wife of an ice merchant in Grand River, Mich., compete with the remarkable history of Douglass in Ireland? Indeed. Maintaining the continuity of our interest is the essence of McCann’s talent. The women who slipped along the edges of the first three stories now emerge in their own chapters clothed in all the complexities and emotional intricacy of those famous men. The individual characters may be fictional, but the details of their lives, running from before the Civil War to our current Great Recession, are precise and telling. As we follow the women of this poor Irish family from one generation to another, back and forth across the Atlantic, they seem as true and as crucial as the former senator from Maine.
“What was a life anyway?” one of them asks herself. “An accumulation of small shelves of incident. Stacked at odd angles to each other.” She could well be talking about this novel, which is a series of such shelves containing the varied incidents of daughters, mothers and grandmothers who thrived for decades as writers, photographers and entrepreneurs.
In the final chapter — the only one narrated in the first person — a desperate older woman faces the imminent loss of her ancestral Irish home, but amid all the financial challenges and attendant humiliations, she has the grace to reflect: “The tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again. We return to the lives of those who have gone before us, a perplexing mobius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves.”
With all these characters engaged in such a variety of endeavors, struggles and tragedies spread across 150 years, it seems strange to speak of “TransAtlantic” as a quiet, contemplative novel, but that’s the effect of McCann’s voice. Under the influence of his serene melody, these history-changing events fade, and the small, unlikely moments accrue lasting importance in a “silence . . . lined with tenderness.”
Complex and demanding as it is, “TransAtlantic” might not widen McCann’s audience, but it should deepen his fans’ appreciation.
Charles is the fiction editor of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles. At 7:00 p.m. June 12, Colum McCann will be at Sidwell Friends School. For details, call Politics & Prose Bookstore at 202-364-1919.