Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"The Incredible Depth of Green"

Transatlantic, by Colum McCann, is described as "masterful and profoundly moving," by Kirkus reviews. With skill that transcends life itself, McCann weaves together these threads:

Newfoundland: 1919
Two aviators, Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown set course for Ireland in a Vickers Vimy. Hoping that a transatlantic crossing would help to heal the wounds of the Great War, they fly into the cold and dark in a craft made with wood and linen.

Dublin 1845-46
Fredrick Douglas, visits Dublin while on an International Lecture Tour. He finds support for the Abolitionist cause among Irish Quakers. He sees poverty, starvation, filth and disease the likes of which shocks a former slave. He bears witness to the scourge of famine.

New York 1998
Senator George Mitchell departs for Belfast leaving a young wife and newborn son at home. The son of an Irish American father and a Lebanese mother, he is sent by the request of the President of the United States, to apply his capable hand to the tiller, and to steer the erratic, explosive and fragile peace process to a safe harbor.

How does Colum McCann whose considerable talents won him the National Book Award, for Let the Great World Spin, manage to connect these events? He employes the perspective of generations of women, all descendents of Lily Duggan, an Irish servant in the household hosting Frederick Douglas.

Transatlantic is a tale so beautifully written, it has an hypnotic quality. Here is one passage:

"The north below, is stunned with morning sunlight. Patches of bright yellow on the mud flats. The fields so wide and grassy. Lake and water meadow. A silver estuary and a huge lake. One small cloud, cast out by the herd, limps away to the west. The plane banks and the city of Belfast appears, always smaller than he expects it to be. The high cranes of the shipyards. The maze of the side streets. The soccer pitches. The flats. The fretful desolation. Then out over the fields again, the incredible depth of green. He has never quite seen the lans so bright before: a clear day through the morning clouds. He is used to its gray edges, its laneways, its high walls. They pull in over Lough Neagh. A vague sadness on touchdown, a tensing of the throat.

On the grass below, the shadow of the plane is squeezed down to its own size, then is gone. Welcome to Belfast Interntational. Contents in the overhead bin may have shifted during flight."   P.121

From an interview in NewStatesman, Colum says, "What could be worse than be called an historical novelist? It's the idea of becoming an alternative historian that really interests me: an historian of the smaller moments. It's a privileged position for the fiction writer, one that opens up a lot of pores- and sometimes wounds as well."

Ireland is a nation of story tellers, singers and poets. A scant few stand above all others: Colum McCann is one.

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