Colum McCann’s latest novel, TransAtlantic, is a fascinating account of the lives of four generations of fictional Irish women woven into recorded history, from Frederick Douglass’ visit to Dublin in 1845 to gain support for the abolitionist cause to Senator George Mitchell’s mediation of Irish peace talks in 1998 on behalf of the Clinton Administration.
Woolf makes an unexpected appearance well into the novel in the story of Emily and Lottie Ehrlich, mother and daughter, journalist/poet and photographer, on a transatlantic journey from their home in Newfoundland to Great Britain in 1929.
They had packed as little as possible in their wooden trunk in the hope that they would be able to move easily from place to place. A few changes of clothes, some weather gear, two copies of the same Virginia Woolf novel [Jacob’s Room], notebooks, photographic film, some medicine for Emily’s arthritis.
The days were lengthy. The hours drifted. The sea stretched a round majestic gray. In the distance the horizon curved. Mother and daughter sat on the deck and looked backwards as the evening sun flared red.
They read the Woolf novel in tandem, matched each other almost page for page. “The voice had an extraordinary sadness. Pure from all body, pure from all passion, going out into the world, solitary, unanswered, breaking against rocks—so it sounded.” What Emily liked most of all was the appearance of ease that Woolf brought. The words slid so easily into one another. There was a sense of a full life being translated. It was, in Woolf’s hands, a display of humility.
She envied the young Woolf. The command and promise the Englishwoman showed. Her profusion of voices. The ability to live in several different bodies.