If you tear apart a pretty picture into tiny bits, each piece will still exude a part of the picturesque whole. Colum McCann’s TranAtlantic is a story broken into three parts, and each part further mystified for the sake of narrating a fiction woven with true events of history.
Historical novels can be boring for many, but when the author plunges into the subject and unleashes a creative freedom to tell a good tale and not narrate a laundry list, you know are reading a masterpiece.
Book one is set in 1919, two war pilots, John Alock and rthur Brown sucessfully attempt, for the first time, to take the war out of the plane with a 20-hour flight across the Atlantic to Ireland. Local reporter Emily Ehrlich and her photographer daughter Lottie witness this flight of the modified bomber aeroplane. In the historical background, the League of Nations is being formed in Paris, and the atmosphere is that of the world shrinking in size.
Emily, too, takes the pleasure to send a letter for her former master, the Jennings, who played a part in her freedom. She entrusts the envelope to Brown. Her story links to 1845, where Frederick Douglass, a black American Slave, visits Ireland to spread the idea of democracy and freedom.
This part of the tale is touching, and McCann succeeds in describing the plight of the poor who face a famine that will kill many, but only after they have suffered to their bones. Even if there is an end to their misery, the amount of blood shed and lives lost makes the hope flickers nervously amid the strong wind of human failure.
The story jumps to 1998 in New York, where we are introduced to Senator George Mitchell. One of the most interesting parts, as here McCann takes a dive into the senator’s personal thoughts and we see, for once, a homely husband, a doting father whose duty to the country keeps him away from his family. Imagine taking 200 flights in three years, and living out a life in two bodies, two wardrobes, two rooms and of course, two clocks. Mitchell, who calls himself a man of crossword puzzles, pyjamas and slippers (a warm confession of his character), is struggling to bring an end to the civil conflict and a political settlement in Northern Ireland.
The mother-daughter bond between Emily and Lottie is poignant. as they face life together, they compliment each other not only as a reporter and photographer, but in a way that it is tough to think of one without the other.
In book three, we meet Hannah, Emily’s granddaughter, who inherits the letter Emily gave Brown to post. The letter that Brown forgot to post has not been opened for over a 100 years. The letter that has been passed on from one mother to her daughter has survived the events that occurred. It is an eyewitness, of sorts, and throughout the rise and fall of the family, as well as the world history.
All events in history are interconnected, and the past is a pillar that holds our present in place. McCann’s book takes the reader across three countries and weaves the history events into a imaginative frame. Meticulous research and thoughtful sketching of each characters, has long-listed this book for the Booker Prize 2013. A well-deserved feat, we say.
Published by Bloomsbury
Price: Rs 399
When they met for the first time in the Vicker’s factory in Brooklands, in early 1919, Alcock and Brown took one look at each other and immediately understood that they both needed a clean slate. The obliteration of memory. The creation of a new moment, raw, dynamic warless. It was as if they wanted to take their older bodies and put their younger hearts inside. They didn’t want to remember the bombs that had duded out, or the crash or burn, or the cell blocks they had been locked into, or what species of abyss they had seen in the dark. Instead they talked about the Vickers Vimy. A nippy little thing.
...after fourteen days the filed was ready, To most people it was simply another patch of land, but to the two pilots it was a fabulous aerodrome. They paced the grass runway, watched the breeze in the trees, looked for clues in the weather. (Excerpted with permission from Bloomsbury India)