A masterful and profoundly moving novel that employs exquisite language to explore the limits of language and the tricks of memory.
It hardly seems possible that this novel, epic in ambition, is comparatively compact or that one so audacious in format (hopscotching back and forth across an ocean, centuries, generations) should sustain such narrative momentum. The award-winning McCann (Let the Great World Spin, 2009, etc.) interweaves historical and fictional truth as he connects the visit to Ireland in 1845 by Frederick Douglass, whose emancipation appeals on behalf of all his fellow slaves inspire a young Irish maid to seek her destiny in America, to the first trans-Atlantic flight almost 65 years later, carrying a mysterious letter that will ultimately (though perhaps anticlimactically) tie the various strands of the plot together. The novel’s primary bloodline begins with Lily Duggan, the Irish maid inspired by Douglass, and her four generations of descendants, mainly women whose struggle for rights and search for identity parallels that of the slave whose hunger for freedom fed her own. Ultimately, as the last living descendant observes, “[t]he tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again. We return to the lives of those who have gone before us, a perplexing mobius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves.” The novel’s narrative strategy runs deeper than literary gamesmanship, as the blurring of distinctions between past and present, and between one side of the ocean and the other, with the history of struggle, war and emancipation as a backdrop, represents the thematic thread that connects it all: "We prefigure our futures by imagining our pasts. To go back and forth. Across the waters. The past, the present, the elusive future. A nation. Everything constantly shifted by the present. The taut elastic of time.”
A beautifully written novel, an experience to savor.