TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

Photo: Marko Metzinger/Studio D

1 of 9
320 pages; Random House
On a gusty afternoon in 1919, two World War I veterans nose their plane into the air, headed east from Newfoundland, pitching across rivers of tailwind and blizzard before crash-landing in a bog in Ireland for the world's first successful transatlantic flight. The navigator furtively carries a letter, given to him by a teenage girl, in his coat pocket. From this thrilling opening, National Book Award winner Colum McCann weaves an intricate tapestry that illuminates the anguish of Irish history and the deeper agonies of war. TransAtlantic (Random House) reads as a series of interconnected novellas, shifting between decades, among an unlikely cast of richly drawn characters, initially foregrounding the men: aviators Brown and Alcock; Frederick Douglass, seeking support from Irish abolitionists on the eve of the potato famine; Senator George Mitchell, brokering a tenuous peace between Catholics and Protestants. But McCann's narrative truly soars when he brings in four generations of Irish women—Lily, Emily, Lottie and Hannah. As he fleshes out their hopes and horrors, TransAtlantic gains altitude and velocity, its stories lifting and intersecting, the unopened correspondence a talisman passed from one generation to the next. At its heart the novel is profoundly antiwar, shaking its fist at needless bloodshed. "When you get up to sit with God or the devil you can curse them both for me," Lily muses to the corpse of her slaughtered son. "This god-awful manufacture of blood and bone. This fool-soaked war that makes a loneliness of mothers." Reminiscent of the finest work of Michael Ondaatje and Michael Cunningham, TransAtlantic is Colum McCann's most penetrating novel yet.
— Hamilton Cain