Shortlisted blockbuster of a novel is a symphony that tugs at the heartstrings
On the publication of the multi-award-winning Let the Great World Spin in 2009, (including 2011's IMPAC) the late Frank McCourt confessed: "Now I worry about Colum McCann. What is he going to do after this blockbuster, groundbreaking, heartbreaking symphony of a novel?"
The answer is provided by TransAtlantic, perhaps not as groundbreaking as Let the Great World Spin, but nonetheless, another blockbuster symphony of a novel, and one that aims at being heartbreaking, too. And it employs the same kind of structural device as the earlier book, which was built around a famous Manhattan high-wire act from the 1970s and was something of a highwire act itself - the author juggling several different storylines and narrative voices in his quest for an overall unity and wholeness.
As with that book, TransAtlantic tells several different stories in several different time zones, though here some of the crucial characters are notable historical figures, thereby setting the author a further challenge: the necessity to get things factually right. This proves especially pressing in the case of George Mitchell, Clinton-appointed broker of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, about whom a good deal is either known or easily verifiable.
The book's other key historical figures are pioneer aviators Alcock and Brown, whose transatlantic crossing from Newfoundland to Clifden made history in 1919, and former slave and abolitionist reformer Frederick Douglass, who arrived in Ireland on a lecture tour in 1845 as the country was about to be plunged into the famine.
Yet, if the book is structured around their famous visits to Ireland, its principal characters are fictions of the author - including Lily, a maid in the Dublin house where Douglass stayed; Lily's American-born daughter and granddaughter, who encounter Alcock and Brown as they set off on their epic journey; and Lily's great-granddaughter Hannah, born in Belfast and inheritor of an unopened letter that the aviators had brought with them across the ocean.
As in Let the Great World Spin, McCann's theme here is the interconnectedness of people and events, a subject found in all sorts of movies (Crash, Babel, etc) and novels (Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side to Niall Williams's Man and Boy). His flair for creating vividly realised characters and scenarios remains his most distinctive quality. Let the Great World Spin (movie rights to which have been bought by JJ Abrams) was especially striking for the psychological and emotional depth of its female characters and in this new book, there's an bracing sense of each woman's personal quirks and of her essential nature.
As for the book's overarching theme - the impact of history, circumstance and destiny on people's lives - readers can decide if they want the great world to keep spinning such giddy notions of time and transcendence.
Bloomsbury, £12.99, pbk, pp336
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