Author: Colum McCann
Publication Info: New York: Random House, 2013
Previously Read by Same Author: Let the Great World Spin
I’m privileged to review an advanced reader’s copy of this forthcoming novel courtesy of the Library Thing Early Reviewer‘s program.
This is a novel of contrasts. It’s an epic story covering three centuries and as the title implies crossing back and forth the Atlantic from Ireland to Canada and the United States. And yet it is a very personal book with detailed character studies of four men and four women. The men are well-known historical figures: American abolitionist Frederick Douglass on a speaking tour of Ireland, Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown making the first nonstop transatlantic flight, and US Senator George Mitchell brokering the Good Friday Agreement. The women are four generations of the same family whose lives briefly intersect with the historical figures: an Irish housemaid Lily Duggan inspired to go to America by Douglass, the journalist Emily Ehrlich who settles in Newfoundland, the photographer Lottie who marries an RAF airman from Northern Ireland, and Hannah Carson whose loses her son in The Troubles and as we read her story in her own voice in the present time is on the verge of losing all of her family history to the bank.
Just as in Let the Great World Spin, McCann does not interweave the stories, yet characters from other stories appear later on. The stories are also connected by an unopened letter which acts as kind of a McGuffin and is one of the less effective aspects of the novel to me. Other than though, the writing in brilliant and McCann has a special gift for capturing the human experience in words. The fictional figures seem as real as the historical figures and the historical figures are so detailed as to appear as fully-realized literary characters. This is another great novel by McCann and I highly recommend it.
“What they need are the signatures. After that, they will negotiate the peace. Years of wrangling still to come, he knows. No magic wand. All he wants is to get the metal nibs striking hard against the page. But really what he would like now, more than anything, is to walk out from the press conference into the sunlight, a morning and evening jammed together, so that there is rise and fall at the same time, east and west, and it strikes him at moments like this the he is a man of crossword puzzles, pajamas, slippers, and all that he needs is to get on a plane, land, enter the lobby of the apartment on Sixty-Seventh Street, step into his own second chance, the proper silence of fatherhood.” – p. 120
Recommended books: A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín