Sunday, 21 July 2013

Transatlantic ~ by Colum McCann

'Transatlantic' is a novel that sparks.
Colum McCann tells the story of a group of characters, all linked in some way, though they live in different periods of history.  So, we have a black, runaway slave turned abolitionist preacher;  a passenger on board a famine ship; a daring pilot making the first transatlantic crossing in an airplane; a politician trying to make a difference in the Troubles of Northern Ireland; a mother coping with the loss of her home as the bank repossess her house. Each character has a  riveting story to tell, but what I find most interesting, and indeed inspiring about this book, is the poetic way in which the author shapes their stories.  

Like the Irish landscape itself, the book's structure resembles that of a patchwork quilt; a text made up of small, individually sound sections, each one connected to the others by interwoven threads, their tones and colours impinging on those nearest to them, yet all possessing a matching tone that suggest Ireland.  Indeed, if these stories were to be given a colour, to represent the nationality of the main characters in each, and were then laid out side by side, I suggest that they would create the Irish flag:  green, for the the Catholics, white for the neutral Americans and orange, for the Protestants.  Ireland is the theme of the book, and Ireland is spelled out across every page, in the language, the imagery and even the structure.  

McCann sets out to analyse what it is to be Irish and recreates a sense of that reality, not in a arbitrary way, of statement followed by statement.  As the rule goes, a writer should not tell but show, and here McCann does precisely that:  he shows, through the senses, through imagery, what it is to be Irish.  Instead of preaching about the horrors of the Great Famine, he shows us the young, starving mother, cradling a dead child amid a bundle of rags, begging desperately for food to feed the child, denying that all hope is gone. The child is already dead. One tiny, grey arm, flops out at the passing gentry, as if begging still; ghost-like, way past starvation, an assault on moral decency, reminding us all of the horror that took place.

There is no need to show us hoards of starving people: one tiny, outstretched arm will suffice.  One image is enough to convey to the reader what starvation does to a mother, a country, a nation.  Like a poet, McCann places before us an array of startling images, each one working on so many levels, yet sparse in their way.

The overall effect is to create something that is uniquely Irish and fresh, making this mostly historical text feel very contemporary. I think McCann manages this by submerging the text in echoes and filling it with mirrors. For example; one story relates the death of a boy on a lake by the family home in Northern Ireland, while another describes the tragic demise of a father and his sons on a frozen lake in North America.  While each story happens miles apart, one impacts upon the other, changing it in some way.

We see this mirroring effect again when we read about three long walks that take place in the book; one from Dublin to Cork where a famine ship awaits; another across miles of pitiless ground, during the American Civil War, in search of a soldier son; and lastly a modern journey, sometimes by car, sometimes on foot, from Northern Ireland to the south, looking for a home, or the promise of one.   While these journeys are important in themselves,  taken together, they speak of a people constantly on the move, in search of something better, and prepared to do whatever it takes to survive.

Of course this image of humanity on the move reminds us of displaced people all around the world. especially during times of famine and war.  In this way, McCann cleverly approaches his themes by visually layering imagery.  Indeed, how can one tell the story of Ireland without discussing the often hackneyed topics of famine and war. But by using this original approach, the author requires the reader to make the connections and draw their own conclusions.

For me such mirroring of imagery and meaning is best explained when we consider the pivotal arrival of black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, towards the beginning of the book, arriving in Ireland in 1848, just as the Irish Famine began and the image of a likewise venerated Barack Obama near the book's end.  Both men appear to mark a huge shift in the world's thinking, offering hope against prejudice and hatred. It cannot be simply a mere coincidence that McCann brings these two images together.   Perhaps it was the similarity between the two events which was the imaginative starting point to this extraordinary text.

The book deals with migration and eviction, past and present, one caused by famine, the other by greedy bankers, and all the things that make us Irish - prejudice, war, hunger.  It seems that we are continuous beleaguered by the same tragedies.  Yet, through it all, women are at the coal face, struggling through and surviving. McCann seems to be saying that the survival of the Irish race is dependent on Irish women, making strong parallels between the female supporters of the abolitionist movement in Victorian Ireland and the Women's Alliance in Northern Ireland during the negotiations of the Good Friday Agreement, and noting the enduring power that can be found in a cup of tea.
Images spark off other images to create new meanings in this book, as McCann bridges the gap between novelist and poet.  Like Heaney's most recent publication, 'Human Chain', McCann writes of the links that unite us, not only today, but forwards into the future, back the the past and even, sideways, beyond time and space. I urge you to read this book, especially if you are Irish: it may teach you a thing or two about who you are and what it truly means to wear that sprig of shamrock on St. Patrick's Day.  It certainly did me.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

May Lou and Cass - Jane Austen's Nieces in Ireland ~by Sophia Hillan

'May, Lou and Cass - Jane Austen's Nieces in Ireland', by Sopha Hillan, is an extraordinary book about one of the world's favourite authors and her connection with Ireland, generally, and Donegal, specifically.   This book charts the life of Jane Austen and her association with the Knight family, her brother's children.  Of course, these children should have inherited the famous 'Austen' surname, were it not for the fact that Jane's elder brother, Edward, was adopted by wealthy cousins who had no child of their own to inherit their fortune and large estate at Godmersham in Hampshire.   A stipulation of the inheritance agreement required that Edward take the name of Knight for his own, which he duly did.  
This book follows the lives of the Knight children, some of whom were very close to their spinster aunt who lived near their large house at Chawton.  Jane was often called upon to help care for the large number of Knight nieces and nephews, when their mother was expecting a child, for example, but especially when Mrs Knight died suddenly and unexpectedly,  just weeks after having given birth to her last baby.  
Jane's letters to her relatives reveal a great deal to us about her, her letters to her eldest niece Fanny especially.  However, what I found most interesting about this book was the uncanny way that the plot lines of Jane Austen's novels mirrored, so exactly, the future lives of her relatives, particularly those of her nieces, Marianne, Cassandra and Louisa Knight.  Indeed, because their aunt was long dead when some of these events occurred, one might be forgiven for surmising that Austen was some kind of clairvoyant.  But I think not; it is just a case of life imitating art and uncannily so.  
Like Anne Elliot, one niece falls in love and becomes engaged, only to face serious censure from  her family and that of her beloved. The engagement is terminated, then unexpectedly rekindled, eight years later, just as she is preparing to marry another man.  The similarity to her Austen's novel,  'Persuasion',  is unmistakable.  
Then there is the secret elopement, in the style of Lydia Bennet, but this time the marriage does indeed take place in Gretna Green.  The similarities are considerable, and are cleverly detailed by Sophia Hillan.  Again and again, she finds parallels between Austen's novels and the lives of her extended family, much to the delight of her readers.
Hillan also tells the story in chapters, each one beginning with a scene from an Austen novel, which perfectly reflects the theme of the chapter.  In this way, the text is very focused, yet feels not like a work of non-fiction at all, but something akin to a novel itself.  Character after character is shown to have lead a life stranger than fiction, making this book very difficult to put down.  Anyone who I have spoken to about this book has said that they read the book in only a couple of days, and I found that I too read it continuously.  
For me, the sections that dealt with Donegal were particularly interesting, especially since I was visiting in that part of Ireland at the time, which really brought the book to life in my imagination.  As an Irish woman, I was very surprised to learn that three of Austen's nieces came to live and be buried in County Donegal, with a grand-niece being born there in fact, who was fluent in Irish and was very much involved with the local community.  
This text is full of historical references and facts, and must be applauded for its attention to detail.  However, one need not have an knowledge of Irish history to understand the cultural context of the book, as Hillan expertly fills in much of the necessary background information on the period for her readers.  Jane Austen herself famously fell in love with a young Irish man who later left England, to settle in Ireland and became Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.  Whether or not he left her with a good impression of the Irish, we will never know, but she did once famously warn her niece, who was writing a novel of her own, to beware of writing about life in Ireland,especially when one did not know what style of manners they had there.  Regardless, it is clear that her nieces adapted to their lives in Donegal and brought something of the Austen refinement and sensitivity with them when they came.  
If you like Jane Austen, and are interested in the strange lives of those long gone, I urge you to read this book.  It will have you amazed and bemused at the strangeness and sometimes cruelty of life, and more than anything, it will make you realise how grateful we, as women, should be to live in this century, with the power to determine how and where we live, whom we love and marry, and how we earn our own living.  Times have certainly changed since Jane Austen and her nieces were alive, and I believe all would be glad to learn of how life has changed for many women in today's world, and thankfully much for the better.