Thursday, January 22, 2015

Transatlantic

Are you familiar with this T.S. Eliot quote: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."? That is the thought that came to me as I was reading Transatlantic, by Colum McCann.

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Taking place on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean between  1845 and 2011, the story follows the lives of 4 succeeding generations of women, though not in succession, but rather in a somewhat complicated and overlapping cycle of their stories. It is a structure that reminds me of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.

Here is the blurb from McCann's website:

Newfoundland, 1919. Two aviators—Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown—set course for Ireland as they attempt the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, placing their trust in a modified bomber to heal the wounds of the Great War.

Dublin, 1845 and ’46. On an international lecture tour in support of his subversive autobiography, Frederick Douglass finds the Irish people sympathetic to the abolitionist cause—despite the fact that, as famine ravages the countryside, the poor suffer from hardships that are astonishing even to an American slave.

New York, 1998. Leaving behind a young wife and newborn child, Senator George Mitchell departs for Belfast, where it has fallen to him, the son of an Irish-American father and a Lebanese mother, to shepherd Northern Ireland’s notoriously bitter and volatile peace talks to an uncertain conclusion.

These three iconic crossings are connected by a series of remarkable women whose personal stories are caught up in the swells of history. Beginning with Irish housemaid Lily Duggan, who crosses paths with Frederick Douglass, the novel follows her daughter and granddaughter, Emily and Lottie, and culminates in the present-day story of Hannah Carson, in whom all the hopes and failures of previous generations live on. 

From the loughs of Ireland to the flatlands of Missouri and the windswept coast of Newfoundland, their journeys mirror the progress and shape of history. They each learn that even the most unassuming moments of grace have a way of rippling through time, space, and memory.

While the characters move back and forth across the ocean, the story flows back and forth through time. The narrator's voice changes with each chapter and I found myself a bit confused (not far to go, I know!) in the first third of the novel. But then it all started to fit together and although I was flipping back and forth through the pages to remind myself of what had gone on before, I found the story completely absorbing and the author's use of language wonderfully descriptive and emotional.

We can be so affected and maybe even influenced by others that we meet in life. It is interesting to reflect on our own lives and families and think about our connections to the past. As present-day Hannah says beautifully near the end of the novel,

"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 möbius strip until we come home, eventually to ourselves."

Transatlantic is my first Colum McCann book. I look forward to catching up with his other works.