Colm McCann's epic new novel spans generations, focusing on historic crossings between Ireland the USA

Colum McCann’s new novel TransAtlantic has two beginnings. The first is set in 2012, as a woman wakes in an airy cottage by a lough to the percussive music of seagulls dropping oyster shells on the roof – the pinging shells bouncing and rolling to lie, either open for the gulls or closed, ‘like a thing unexploded’. The gulls leave in ‘squadrons’, and the house comes to life with the wind off the lough moving through it.

The novel begins properly, though, in 1919, with the story of the birth of a word: 'transatlantic'. McCann traces the first flight from Canada to Ireland by Alcock and Brown in a ‘modified bomber. A Vickers Vimy. All wood and linen and wire.’ Set within the context of a time ‘in which the idea of the gentleman had become almost myth’ and Europe ‘a crucible of bones’ after the Great War, we are in Newfoundland, with two men who carry the mark of that war with them.

First they must use the skills of war to prepare the meadow – levelling it with dynamite to make it ready as a runway, but then they will work an alchemy that will take ‘the war out of the plane, stripping the whole thing of its penchant for carnage'.

This first section becomes the template for the others that make up the whole. Historical figures are made vivid in a few strokes of a pen. Alcock is ‘the sort of man who looked straight ahead but stayed open to laughter'; Brown 'looked like a vicar, but his eyes flared a far blue’.

Also the figures of the periphery whose stories we don’t know – the journalist Emily Ehrlich, there to cover the flight and her young flirtation of a daughter, Lottie, who is a photographer and who asks Brown if it would be an imposition to carry a letter with him to Ireland, addressed to the Jennings family on Brown Street in Cobh.

The second section of the first book takes us back to Famine Ireland and another transatlantic crossing – that of the escaped slave Fredrick Douglass, who lands in Kingstown Pier, a guest of abolitionist Protestant and Quaker campaigners who wish to hear him speak of the plight of the Negro, while all but oblivious to the plight of the starving in their own land.

It is an irony not lost on the African-American, but he knows he’ll lose the leverage of his own cause if he draws their attention closer to home. That section begins and ends in a different fugue, that of Catholic Dubliner, Lily Duggan, who, somewhat smitten by the romance of the beautiful black man, flees the confinement and near-invisibility of her life and takes a famine ship to New York – one of the ‘countless masses’ made real by McCann’s pen.

In the third section of the first book we are in Northern Ireland, in Belfast, in the end part the 20th century, after a crossing that is the antithesis of Lily’s – the privileged, gentled crossing of the powerful American senator, George Mitchell, his way eased by wealth and reputation. Flights across the world are now used as the mechanics of peacemaking, and Mitchell's flight forms a textured bookend to the nerve-wracking first crossing of the start.

Mitchell's crossing involves also a flight from the private – the bed of his new wife and young son – to the public – the peace negotiations in Stormont and London. This journey is mediated by the silent privacy of Mitchell's comfortable car through the city, and the ministrations of stewardesses at JFK airport, who ‘have a fondness for him, his quietness, his humility’ and pamper him in the ‘Vippery’ – a form of flying the rest of us can only imagine.

The brilliance of McCann’s fictive shorthand becomes hugely enjoyable here, when we know the figures written of. On the day of the Good Friday Accord, for example, ‘There is a swerve to Blair. The neat suit, the tie. A dishevelment to Ahern. A busy grief’ – a reference to the fact that Bertie Ahern’s mother had died on Holy Thursday. It is in this section that we begin to be aware of something happening in the narrative, from Mitchell’s own thoughts as he flies in for the talks:

‘It was the others who had brought the possibility here: Clinton, Reynolds, Hume, Major. He just wanted to land it. To take it down from where it was, aloft, like one of those great lumbering machines of the early part of the century, the crates of air and wood and wire they somehow flew across the water.’

It is as though that unexploded shell on the lawn of the lough cottage at the book’s start has begun to open, as the reader feels the accumulation of criss-crossed stories achieve a kind of thrust or momentum of connection – a pattern of contrails whose intersections and poetic doublings become the focus of the book’s second half, in which you might find yourself exclaiming aloud at the wonder of those connections and the cleverness of the book’s architecture.

The epigraph of the American poet ‘Wendell Berry’, which prefaces the second book, confirms our sense of this:

‘But this is not the story of a life.
It is the story of lives, knit together,
overlapping in succession, rising
again from grave to grave.’

In the second part of the book, characters comment upon their lives and in so doing, seem to draw reflexive references to their own fictive situation. 'It was odd how life could be so very expansive and return to the elements of childhood...'

The third book brings the whole to a quiet but thrilling crescendo. The shell explodes finally, not violently but delicately in the opening of a letter given to Brown and put in his pocket on the first transatlantic flight, but never delivered.

It is hard to do justice to this book in a review – its beautiful complexity that is the complexity of life itself, its doublings and echoes and the repercussions through time of the lives of not just the great and the good but also of the smaller figures, more usually glanced briefly in their light and then forgotten. That is McCann’s great democratic gift: the telling of the stories of margins and of those about whom no official history remains, but who are part of the fabric of the bigger events.

This book for me is most like his 1998 novel, This Side of Brightness. In that, McCann went below New York and into the lives of the immigrant men who built the great tunnels under the Hudson. There too, there was a moment in which all of the earlier part of the book is suddenly changed by a revelation in the narrative that sends you back to read it again with a different knowledge.

In his last novel, Let the Great World Spin, Dublin-born McCann went above the streets of his adopted city to the acrobatics of a single figure suspended between the doomed towers of the World Trade Centre – holding there in the arms of the walker the history and future of the city and the towers.

TransAtlantic novel goes higher again – to the skies – where McCann performs his own stunning walk between worlds, and we are all brought somehow higher by his words – left ‘all of us together, aloft’.

TransAtlantic is out now, published by Bloomsbury.