There is a shock of pleasure midway into this novel when one realizes three disparate stories of courageous, capable men on two continents are connected through the women they’ve known. The stories of these brave men are delicious vignettes to be supped upon at leisure…there is no bustle and rush as one story ends and another begins, each as delectable as the last, but that thread of connection is the mystery we struggle to untangle throughout.
Arthur Brown, one of the first transatlantic flight team; Frederick Douglass, former slave and speaker for emancipation; George Mitchell, principal negotiator for Northern Ireland’s peace accords: these men have a faint connection over 150 years and that connection is an unopened, undelivered airmail letter that accompanied that the flight crew on their 1919 ground-breaking flight.
The prose seems to match the stories: when we read of the transatlantic flight, the writing is muscular, propulsive. When Douglass visits the Irish countryside, there is a smoky wistfulness clinging to the pages. And in the section on George Mitchell flying back and forth to Europe from New York, we read the sheer effort in the lines.
The novel then reveals the women that have touched these men, and by weaving in their lives the underlying links are uncovered. It brought to mind the theory of “six degrees of separation” and how closely, yet loosely, we all revolve around one another on the planet. If ever you doubted the reason for “treating another as you wish to be treated,” this is another glimpse into our intimate connection with one another, years and continents apart notwithstanding.
I have not read other works by Colum McCann, though I have of course heard of the much-lauded Let the Great World Spin. That book alone is reason enough to be interested in this novel—to see what the man has come up with now. But I can’t help but think this new novel didn’t quite pull together great truths or leave us with something to cogitate and remember as the years roll on. Somehow literature, or the work of great novelists, should leave us something to consider, to remember, to use in our own lives. If there was anything here, it would be that connectedness—how close we are despite the distance, despite the years—but perhaps there could have been something more to round out the effort of writing (and reading) a long book.
Of course, when one picks real-world figures, one is somewhat constrained by their history, but perhaps it wasn’t necessary to make them living men, just as the women were constructions to suit the work. When I read fiction I assume the writer is not strictly truthful, so placing a real figure in the piece makes the reader question both veracity and the lack of it. Perhaps this is one point?
In any case, I can recommend this book to writers and readers for its organizing concept alone. There is something magical about tracing a thread of connection, however tenuous, over a century or more. It makes an intriguing premise for a novel.
I was not, perhaps, the most attentive reader. After writing this review, I listened to a very revealing interview Colum McCann had with Neil Conan on NPR's Talk of the Nation. It tells the story of this novel, how it came to be, and what it is meant to be. I share it in hopes that anyone interested in, or puzzled by, this novel will get the most from it.
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