Excerpt from TransAtlantic by Colum McCann, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Novel

by Colum McCann

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  • First Published:
    Jun 2013, 320 pages
    May 2014, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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Print Excerpt

—Good God, said Alcock, you really told her that?

—I did, yes.

—And what did she say?

—Said I could lose the walking stick.

—Ah! Smitten.

At the press briefings, Alcock took the helm. Brown navigated the silence by fiddling with his tie clip. He kept a brandy bottle in his inside pocket. Occasionally he turned away, opened the flap of his tunic, took a nip.

Alcock drank, too, but loudly, publicly, happily. He rested against the bar in the Cochrane Hotel and sang Rule, Britannia in a voice so out of tune that it was loaded with whimsy.

The locals—fishermen mostly, a few lumberjacks—banged on the wooden tables and sang songs about loved ones lost at sea.

The singing went on late into the night, long after Alcock and Brown had gone to bed. Even from the fourth floor they could hear sad rhythms breaking into waves of laughter and then, later still, the Maple Leaf Rag hammered out on a piano.

Oh go 'way man
I can hypnotize dis nation
I can shake de earth's foundation
with the Maple Leaf Rag

ALCOCK AND BROWN rose at sunup, then waited for a clear sky. Turned their faces to the weather. Walked the field. Played gin rummy. Waited some more. They needed a warm day, a strong moon, a benevolent wind. They figured they could make the flight in under twenty hours. Failure didn't interest them, but in secret Brown wrote out a will, gave everything he owned to Kathleen, kept the envelope in the inside pocket of his tunic.

Alcock didn't bother with a will. He recalled the terrors of the war, still surprised at times that he could wake at all.

—There's puff all else they can throw at me now.

He slapped the side of the Vimy with his palm, took a look at the clouds massing far off in the west.

—Except of course some more ruddy rain.

ONE GLANCE DOWN takes in a line of chimneys and fences and spires, the wind combing tufts of grass into silvery waves, rivers vaulting the ditches, two white horses running wild in a field, the long scarves of tarmacadam fading off into dirt roads—forest, scrubland, cowsheds, tanneries, shipyards, fishing shacks, cod factories, commonwealth, we're floating on a sea of adrenaline and— Look! Teddy, down there, a scull on a stream, and a blanket on the sand, and a girl with pail and shovel, and the woman rolling the hem of her skirt, and over there, see, that young chap, in the red jersey, running the donkey along the shore, go ahead, give it one more turn, thrill the lad with a bit of shadow . . . ON THE EVENING of June 12 they take another practice run, this one at night so Brown can test out his Sumner charts. Eleven thousand feet. The cockpit is open to the sky. The cold is fierce. The men hunker behind the windscreen. Even the tip ends of their hair begin to freeze.

Alcock tries to feel the plane, her weight, her dip, her center of gravity, while Brown works on his mathematics. Below, the reporters wait for the plane to return. The field has been outlined with candles in brown paper bags to make a runway. When the Vimy lands, the candles blow over and burn briefly in the grass. Local boys run out with buckets to douse the flames.

The airmen climb down off the plane to scattered applause. They are surprised to learn that a local reporter, Emily Ehrlich, is the most serious of all. She never asks a single question, but stands around in a knit hat and gloves, scribbling in her notebook. Short and unfashionably large. In her forties or fifties perhaps. She moves with a hefty gait across the muddy airfield. Carrying a wooden cane. Her ankles are terribly swollen. She looks like the type of woman who might be working in a cake shop, or behind a country-store counter, but she has, they know, an incisive pen. They have seen her in the Cochrane Hotel, where she has lived for many years with her daughter, Lottie. The seventeen-year-old wields a camera with surprising ease and style, a flirtation. Unlike her mother, she is tall, thin, sprightly, curious. She is quick to laugh and whisper in her mother's ear. An odd team. The mother stays silent; the daughter takes the photos and asks the questions. It infuriates the other reporters, a young girl in their territory, but her questions are sharp, quick. What sort of wind pressure can the wing fabric withstand? What is it like to have the sea disappear beneath you? Do you have a sweetheart in London, Mr. Alcock? Mother and daughter like to stride across the fields together at the end of the day, Emily to the hotel room where she sits and writes her reports, Lottie towards the tennis courts where she plays for hours on end.

Excerpted from TransAtlantic by Colum McCann. Copyright © 2013 by Colum McCann. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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