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Procrustes' Bed

From: Sewanee Review
Volume 121, Number 4, Fall 2013
pp. lxxxii-lxxxiii | 10.1353/sew.2013.0101

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This novel is beautifully shaped and written. It seems to me a significant advance over Colum McCann's last novel, Let the Great World Spin, which earned the National Book Award and was aptly described by the New York Times as "an emotional tour de force," words that apply with greater exactitude to TransAtlantic—a superb novel with a considerable cast of characters, both real and fictitious; a great historical sweep from 1845 to the recent past; and a series of interlocking plots that come to fruition as the lives of the various figures rise and fall, meet and part, cross and recross, complement and buttress one another.

The action begins in 1919 when two veteran pilots from the raf who have survived World War i rebuild a Vickers Vimy bomber in order to try to make the first transatlantic crossing. This sequence first appeared in the New Yorker last spring. As McCann artfully dramatizes the story, it is as exciting as Lindbergh's solo flight eight years later. J. W. Alcock, the pilot, and A. W. Brown, the navigator, narrowly achieve their goal; and they are both knighted in consequence. Brown and his family appear in the action ten years later when they are visited by two women who had been in Newfoundland at the Cochrane Hotel when they are first preparing to take off for Ireland. After many complications they take off in foul weather and barely get to Ireland. Brown takes a letter written by Frederick Douglass to put in the mailbag that accompanies them but then forgets to mail it, and thereby hangs another fascinating tale. The letter carries the action until nearly the end of the novel. Douglass, of course, is the American slave who escapes his bondage, flees to Dublin, and buys his freedom. His portrait is beautifully and sympathetically drawn, as is that of other historical figures, such as—a hundred years or so later—Senator George Mitchell of Maine. He acts as an envoy to Northern Ireland in the process of trying to resolve the Troubles, which [End Page lxxxii] parallel the troubles of slavery leading to—and beyond—the American Civil War. Frederick Douglass, while in Dublin and Cork, sees the outset of the Great Famine in Ireland and is incredulous, just as Mitchell is by the internecine warfare in Belfast and elsewhere.

Lily Duggan, a servant at the house of Richard Webb, Douglass's publisher, is so moved by Douglass's commitment to freedom that she determines to secure her own and leaves her modest place for America. Her story—which runs through well after the Civil War and the lives of her husband and their children, especially the last, Emily (preceded by five brothers), and Emily's daughter, Lottie—provides the heart of the action. As Wendell Berry puts it in "Rising":

But this is not the story of a life.
It is the story of lives, knit together,
Overlapping in succession . . .

Emily and Lottie are present when Alcock and Brown take off from Newfoundland; earlier Lily and Emily see Douglass in St. Louis toward the end of his life as he presents a great speech to a large and appreciative audience. The scene, which ends when Lily is too shy to approach Douglass, is one of many such perfectly presented tableaux.

McCann is the master of the scenic dimension in fiction, whether it occurs in conversation among characters or as seascape or landscape. Here Mitchell's plane approaches Belfast: "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. . . . One small cloud, cast out by the herd, limps away to the west. . . . The fretful desolation. Then out over the fields, again, the incredible depth of green. He has never quite seen the land so bright."

Later, toward the novel's end, Hannah, Lottie's daughter, makes several outings to Belfast on business. Here a morning is beginning for her: "The sky lifts the hem of Belfast. At the window she looks out over the rooftops. It's a dreary city, but there is something about it that charges her in the early...

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