Every Falling Anecdote

Fall, the first:

Years after it happened they still come round the house, sit around the kitchen table, and ask me just what it was like to fall. They all want to hear about it again and again, if only to find the faults in my story and treat themselves to a few corrections.

‘It felt like I’d done it before,’ I begin.

‘What’s that called,’ they say, ‘déjà vu?’

Except we all know that’s not it, because it happened here and everything that happens here is not like anything that may have happened somewhere else. They wonder if there’s any coffee going, which there has to be, and then we sit there for a while, in the suburbs of everything, with people going away and more or less no one coming back.

I fell on a Saturday, whilst crossing the lake with Sis on our way home from town. We never bothered with the scooter those days. Dad claims they’re too expensive when accidents happen. She was on about the latest episode of Buffy. I was complaining about my Christmas slippers, which had been delivered in the wrong colour, and that’s when, out of nowhere, the rules slipped away from underneath my Timberlands. The lower layers of the ice exploded in a loud flopp.

‘Flopp?’ they interrupt.

‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘That’s what it sounded like.’

‘Ok, alright then,’ they say, but you can tell that’s not the word they’d choose.

‘Go on,’ they say, ‘and then?’

I tell them how this gun-shot sound reminded me of last year, when we celebrated the end of a really boring century (at least for me) and the beginning of a horrid one so far. We were standing outside our house, and Dad asked my cousin Jörgen to open the champagne. The cork rocketed over the garage and landed on the barn roof. They all laughed and said he should have handed it over to someone who’d actually had a drink in his life, as if his parents didn’t know that he’s been picked up from gardens around town at four in the morning at least three times and stomach-pumped once. This all gets brought up; it’s seen as part of the anecdote.

Dad used to say that if I ever fell through the ice I’d float. My buoyancy was not up for discussion. When they tried bathing me as a baby I kept breaking the surface, heavy all around but somehow really expansive as well, and at sixteen I was now so broad-shouldered they could have used me on the field instead of a tractor. Dad, obviously, was not in any way involved in my baths anymore (we’re not freaks), so the tractor was his new joke about me. He said I was practical, meaning that I would never leave.

You’re not supposed to be frightened if you fall. It’s all jokes and pats on the shoulder, a few drinks at the pizzeria/pub/post office, death in one instance about ten years ago, but fear is edited out. So actually Sis should not have been screaming her head off.

‘I remember,’ I tell them, ‘she took a step back when she saw it crack.’

‘It never happens that slowly,’ they say, holding up a cup of coffee with a downward glance at my cleavage. ‘You never remember that much.’

I thought the drifting apart would last forever. Then the cold came in as if from the left, and my clothes grew heavy, pulling down and underneath the ceiling of that wet tent. I tried kicking my boots off. My jeans were kissing me all over; I’d finally found a pair that made it look like I almost had curves. I was in a porridge pot but doing the opposite of boiling, and all the while her screeching was pissing off the lake itself. This wasn’t how we deal with things. The sounds: slower, and proper waves, which can fill the smallest of holes when they break the usual surface. Then they all came running to pick me up.

That’s what happened the day I took up my place in the lake’s historical gob.

‘Good,’ they say when I’ve finished this telling.

‘Is there more coffee? Scooter has no fuel for the way back.’

*

Fall, the second:

It goes without saying that most people, who aren’t from around here obviously, think we’re total idiots. If there’s someone not-from-around-here listening (sometimes Jakob, our neighbour, brings a friend from university down south) I like to keep an eye on them and look out for the disbelief. It’s like noticing someone’s acne.

‘You mean you’d rather freeze to death than walk around the fucking lake?’

It’s a habit, we say. We really mean the accidents and not the shortcut, but we don’t care if that’s clear or not. The ice clicks its fingers when you walk on it; it tosses unruly nightmares. I saw a documentary about bullfighting the other day, and when the guy with the beefy legs was thrown up into the air they slowed it all down, so you could see each part of the fall. He was upside down for a pretty long time. We’re the best in the country at falling, and at being picked up, and that’s the line every good falling-anecdote should end with:

‘Then they picked me up.’

‘You shouldn’t let it get to you,’ Sis said.

We were strolling on top of seventy metres of nothing. The plan was to be home in time for a particular Buffy re-run.

‘What are you talking about?’ I asked, pulling at the collar of my coat.

‘You know,’ she said. ‘What happened at Onur’s. Just forget about it.’

Neither of us had seen the guys since Tuesday’s workshop with our Swedish Youth Temperance group. It had ended in ‘awkwardnessstuds’, as Sis called it.

‘They were talking about me,’ I confirmed.

‘You could have just changed the subject. Or sent him a message afterwards, or something.’

She slipped a little, elbowing me in the ribs. It was – fuck, the cold that would be in just a minute. We dropped the subject before the surface dropped me. I remember this long, velvety skirt with studs around the waist that Sis had started wearing (she was sniffing at the bums of the emo kids, I used to tell her, the kids that had been my friends three years prior) and how it was getting wet from the snow, sliding over the toes of her Dr Martens. When I tell them the story of my fall I mention spotting Melkerson’s Mia on the east shore, shuffling snow with her iPod plugged in. I say something about her strength.

‘Her back looked like it held,’ I say.

What didn’t hold was the road we used, with so much trust shovelled up on it.

*

Fall, the third: Sister

People have fallen in all kinds of ways: with groceries rolling out from the edges of the ring in the ice, like skin creeping away from an open gash; on skis, making something like a pier with the person hanging upside down, or like Melkerson: off his head, all his six kids on their fronts to fish him up, heavier but not with regret.

‘How about you stop being such a child about it,’ Sis said when she came into the kitchen that morning. ‘People say stuff like that only because you let it get to you.’

She had her nose in a tub of zero-calorie yoghurt, her tracksuit bottoms hanging off her ass in disappointment. They reminded me of when we used to run into the lake in our pants and it was merely a fact that we looked different, not a medal.

‘I’m sorry,’ she muttered and passed me the yoghurt.

‘Disgusting,’ I said. ‘You’ve ruined it.’

I was wondering if I should ask her out to see a movie.

‘Do you want to come with me into town?’ she said. ‘I need to post this transcript.’

Sis didn’t trust the online application system. She wanted to become a dietary consultant for eating-disorder patients, and she wanted to move to Berlin, preferably way before she’d finished high-school. I’d begun to think of the town sans her, every now and then, and it was like trying food that’s so spicy you’d pay money to rewind the moment you put it in your mouth. When we were little we used to go out on midsummer’s eves and pick seven flowers, climbing over seven fences without saying a single word. There are still some old fences around here, which is useful and of no consequence. If you spoke, even once, you wouldn’t dream of the one you were going to marry. I would sneak up on her before the seventh fence. The things you remember are always numbered.

The day I fell Mum had asked us to bring back three things from the shop: eggs, tampons and detergent. You ask anyone about the time I fell and ten years later they’ll still be burping up that list: eggs, tampons, detergent.

‘Did you ever dream of anyone?’ I asked Sis, leaving the house.

‘I dreamt of different people every year,’ she said, and that was it.

Before we left the house I had the quickest look ever in the mirror. The distance between hair-dos and hair-don’ts is only the width of two fingers, and after that any hair at all is gross. Hair didn’t matter when the ice broke.

*

Fall, the other one:

It was me who started to hang out with Tore; we met through STY before Sis changed her mind about alcohol and realised that having none of it meant fewer calories overall. The week before my fall we went to a workshop with our local group, to record a series of YouTube videos about alcohol poisoning and hypothermia. Afterwards we went to ‘Onur’s’ for coffee, pizza and stationery.

Sis asked me to get her a skinny latte so she could save me a seat at the table. My drink was black when they gave me it. It looked irritable and generally lacking of fun. When I came back to the table, the chair next to Sis had been taken by Anders Fredrikson, who was ripping sugar sachets into tiny strips. I sat down opposite him and counted them in my head. Anders’s mum is from India, so he’s got this moustache which won’t grow into a full one, just an undecided film. He had a fresh cut on his upper lip that day, from trying to get rid of it. Before I got there they must have been making fun of it around the table. A corner of the plaster he’d stuck on his lip had come detached and was waving at us.

‘Do you need mummy Curry to help you?’ Kristoffer giggled.

‘Did she kiss it better?’ Sam said.

Anders was laughing, and murdering the sachets; scanning the table, he found me.

‘Hey guys,’ he said. ‘You know what it’s like.’

He kept looking at me, and very soon everyone else was doing it too.

‘You know what it’s like,’ he said again. ‘Not everyone likes to shave, right?’

At that point their laughter swelled over them, and over me, obviously, as part of them, and I thought: how far do I fall?

*

If I take one more step, can I both freeze and float?

*

Two red blots sprouted on Sis’s cheeks and Tore mumbled something about those YouTube videos. Maybe he could edit them, he said, he’d done a bit of that before at school. I stroked my upper lip, plucked smooth and safe. Anders looked into his hot chocolate, no sachets left to destroy.

‘I like moustaches,’ I said.

I licked my upper lip very slowly. Then I reached out for Sis’s latte and shoved my face into the foam.

‘Love ’em’, I said when I came back up.

Obviously there was a lot more laughter. I turned to look at Tore, who was looking at me, smiling, and then I decided, the way rules sometimes just appear by themselves in a certain time and place, that the next time I saw him he would have grown a moustache. It would be a sign, I decided, of something, a change or another still being an option.

*

Dreaming of people you sort of know

The ice bent and undid decisions underneath Sis and me. We knew it so well – the thin parts and the sections you could jump up and down on if you felt like it – we almost weren’t supposed to care about whether it was there or not.

‘We tell each other about stuff,’ I said.

She sighed and asked about what.

‘Dreams,’ I said, ‘like really weird dreams.’

She said she never remembered her dreams. She said it was a sign of bad self-esteem, remembering everything you dream.

‘But you just said you used to dream about different people every midsummer.’

‘Did I?’ she said and sped up.

I stopped for a second while she kept walking. Her neck looked sweaty and cold where I could see it above her coat. She didn’t like scarves because there was always the possibility, she said, of someone grabbing one end of them and strangling you. I caught up with her.

‘He dreams the weirdest stuff,’ I said. ‘Things you’d never think of.’

I meant you as in ‘one’ but also not. I meant she had no imagination, so there.

‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ she asked.

‘I know it’s stupid but he makes me laugh,’ I said.

‘Why are you being like this? Is it just because of the moustache thing?’

Underfoot, the sound of the first crack.

‘A crack?’ they interrupt mid-telling. ‘Yes, well of course,’ they say, ‘sometimes it is a crack. But often it’s more like a snap. Are you sure it wasn’t more like a snap?’

I correct myself, and I continue to describe the steps of the fall in detail, from the mild weather to the positioning of us in relation to the shore, and the colour of the ice against the rocks far away.

Sis was refusing to wear glasses at the time. Mum and Dad had already taken her to get her eyesight tested, but she insisted on keeping the glasses tucked down the bottom of her rucksack, hoping something terrible would happen. This was why when the STY invited guest speakers she’d always sit in the front row, whilst Tore and I sat at the back, writing things down and passing them between each other: what happened during the night to all these people we sort of knew. None of our neighbours would be themselves anymore. We’d dreamt them out of their own and their practiced anecdotes. Anders Fredriksson played ice hockey with ears instead of feet. A giant ear replaced the Swedish flag in front of the college, with us saluting God knows what in front of it. The people from around here all had coffee around tables and realised, horrified, that they were deaf, had lost their words, babbled incoherently. All those dreams were full of ears, and nobody ever heard about them but me.

One of the things I’ll never include in the story is the last dream Tore told me about.

‘It’s nothing,’ I said to Sis. ‘Will you hurry up already?’

That scrap of paper, now in my coat pocket, soon destroyed by water, said:

I dreamt something brilliant last night. It was hairy.

Compared to that everything else around here was a repetition, piled upon another in my throat.

*

Fall the last: they pulled me up

At this point in the telling there have been multiple coffee top-ups. If it’s winter chances are it’s gone dark with all the interruptions. The listeners might be talked into staying for dinner, at which point my story is hurried towards its ending. They all remember that it was Melkerson’s Mia who heard Sis’s screaming first because she was out in their yard, and that she called her brothers. They lift weights and run races but they’ll never run away. They came out as far as they deemed it safe and threw themselves down by the edge of the freshly opened hole, turning their bodies into rafts for me.

‘You knew what to do with that, didn’t you Annelli?’ they say around the kitchen table, as an encouragement to wrap things up.

If I didn’t know what to do with that I wouldn’t have been from around here. I am from here not because I fell, but because I knew how to pull myself up the right way. In one of the rooms upstairs my sister’s alarm clock goes off in time for Buffy, quite a few times after she’s left, making everyone around the table jump.

Once I was up on dry land I let myself be carried into the house by Mats Melkerson, whose armpits smelt of burnt cheese. No one called an ambulance but a pretty good crowd had come running and I could tell they were disappointed to have missed the picking-up itself; it happens so quickly and the rest is really not much to see. On our way up across the lawn I saw Tore arrive. His face showed up between two birches and stayed there for just a second, which was when we might have seen each other, had it not been for her screams. She came running up the slope, hysterical, and Tore took hold of her and held her but really carefully, the opposite of how I was being hoisted over one shoulder. He helped her up the slope, her cheeks laminated with snot. His own face looked very dark and prickly, though, at least from where I was. Hep, I thought. I won. I lifted my arm and jabbed it upwards, opened my throat up and cleared it.

They never tell you how much time there is between the second you fall and when you come back up. There were enough seconds for everyone and everything that doesn’t get told. There was time enough for non-colours: the white of my hand and the lilac behind my eyelids. There was time for kicking up a fuss and for thinking that it was moronic. Everything takes so much longer down there that I even had time for a headache.

At the end of the anecdote there’s always a missing point. It’s left down there: what I was shouting, when they carried me towards the open door of Melkerson’s house to get me dry, the whooping, or how I hit Melkerson in the jaw without meaning to, pushing against the lid of the sky.




Book Review: Multiples: 12 Stories in 18 Languages by 61 Authors , edited by Adam Thirlwell

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“No one claims to be an expert in novels who only reads novels in Portuguese, or Tagalog. And so the history of literature necessarily exists through translation. The reader who wants to investigate the difficult art of the novel will end up with a whole warehouse of imported goods.”

Adam Thirlwell, from the introduction

How do you read an experiment? If this were a science article, I’d turn to different kinds of documentation: the reports, the plans and the results. But what if this experiment is a collection of stories: simultaneously the attempt and its outcome? Multiples is nothing short of a grand experiment in storytelling; authorial rebellion; language, and how to read a book. Talking about it, let alone reviewing it, turns out to require some experimentation of its own.

Approach:

Novelist Adam Thirlwell began with twelve stories, originally written in almost as many different languages. Each of these was given to a writer who translated it into English. Their translation was then given to yet another writer, who translated it again to their own language. It does sound complicated, and yet, after the initial shock of glancing at the intricate list of contents, you very quickly understand the logic, and very soon you are absorbed in the game.

It’s an adventure in which each individual player is perhaps more lost than you are as a reader. Each story becomes a series of tales, which not only transport the plot from language to language, but also document the struggles each writer has had to face. These include some of the most internationally applauded names of today – Zadie Smith, A.S. Byatt, Dave Eggers – as well as lesser known ones. Many of them aren’t even close to fluent in the languages they are translating from, and most of them are first and foremost fiction writers, not translators. On top of this, there’s the fact that none of the originals are included in Multiples: the first text you encounter is itself a translation. This triple removal from translating as a profession is crucial, as it reveals the wildly different attitudes it is possible to adopt, while still calling what you do a “translation”.

“For me, writing is ultimate freedom, because you don’t need to take anyone else into account when you write; you can just be yourself. But as a translator, I felt the exact opposite: every time I’ve touched the keyboard, there was this dead Czech guy breathing down my neck.”

Etgar Keret

Method:

For some, loyalty to the original is essential. The smallest word choices are closely considered, one option weighed against the other. The changing of “slob” to “beggar” is dwelt on for days. However, the jumps – the creative blips – soon begin to surface. In the first English version of Enrique Vila-Matas “Los de Abajo”, there is no beggar at all. Only untied shoe laces. Loyal to their own style, writers begin to add things, manipulate and change. A story in Hungarian appears first in German prose, then turns into verse in English. “Los de Abajo”, once it has become “People Underground” in Tom McCarthy’s version, has been divided into numbered sections. By the time “A preface to writing samples”, Clancy Martin’s version of Kierkegaard’s Danish text, has become “Översättarens anmärkning” by Swedish novelist Jonas Hassan Khemiri, it bears no resemblance to the original. Instead of the Danish philosopher’s satire on the writing life, Khemiri delivers a fictional letter from an affronted translator to his publisher.

The term “translating” has different elasticity in the eyes of different writers. A.S. Byatt refrained from rewriting a kiss because she “didn’t have the right” to, whereas Adam Foulds produces a set of short reflections in which the original plot can be followed only if you are looking for it: “both a rendering and a reading” of the same story. Icelandic Sjón asked his thirteen-year-old son to memorize the story and then wrote it down. Experiments give birth to more experiment.s The idea of “staying true” to an original also implies some sense of responsibility, but to whom? When translating what he’d been told was a story by Kafka, Israeli author Etgar Keret went as far as convincing Nathan Englander to keep the word “animal” instead of “creature”: “This way we both got a better final text in the end, and Kafka’s ghost will haunt Nathan and not me.” Some of the most entertaining sections of Multiples are the “Notes on Translation” ending each series, when the “players” of Thirlwell’s game are asked to comment on their process: their small agonies, their choice not to use Google translate, or to use it throughout. It’s clear they had fun.

Results:

What of the stories as entertainment? How do you read one story three or four times and stay interested? Multiples highlights the subjectivity of all our reading experiences. What’s available to me as a Spanish, Swedish and English speaker is different from what a friend who speaks German and English can read of the collection. Most intriguing of all is perhaps how I slowly am taken in by the book’s spirit of playful rebellion. Trying to follow the transformation, I find myself wishing for more and more change: I begin to root for the irreverent. Perhaps it’s because as a fiction reader I am not trained to read stories in multiples, or because variety is entertaining. Chloe Hooper calls it “bio-translation”, a term I like. It brings to mind a cluster of cells changing, a body mutating in all its aspects.

How do you read such a book? You might have to read it multiple times. I’ll come back to it when in need of a little creative and linguistic revelry. With only three percent of books sold in the UK being translations, it is a very important one.

“My first thought on reading “Umberto Buti” was that the protagonist seemed strangely Chinese, with his rejection of politics, aversion to risk, sense of inferiority, and thwarted desires. I asked myself: if he’d been born in China in 1931, how many details of his story woul have to altered?”

Ma Jian

Multiples was published in August 2013. Buy it from Forbes.




Atwood Takes Her Pick

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood

Attending book festivals I often wonder about the puzzle-work that goes on behind a neatly arranged stage-panel. Who ended up talking to whom, about what exactly, and how happy is she or he about spending an hour with this author, whose writing they might or might not like?  This year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival invited four authors to each curate a series of events, choosing who should join them on the stage, as well as the theme of discussion. One of them was Canadian novelist, poet and overall visionary Margaret Atwood, here to promote her latest novel, Maddaddam. Having dedicated a dissertation and more than one essay to her work during my university years, I jumped at the chance to see what would happen when Atwood the interviewee became Atwood the interviewer.  Perhaps unsurprisingly for those familiar with her work, these events offered plenty of monsters and impending catastrophes, but also a no-nonsense approach to vague answers, and quite a few additions to my reading list. “I’ve curated these events,” Atwood said on the Sunday afternoon, in the Baille Gifford Theatre. “Consider yourselves curated.”

The first event, “Writing under the Influence”, brought British novelist Naomi Alderman together with American author Valerie Martin. Atwood has made a guest appearance on Alderman’s innovative Zombies, Run! an app adventure which combines survival skills with outdoor fitness. Martin’s new novel explores the links between the spiritualist life of Arthur Conan Doyle and the Mary Celeste, a legendary ghost ship. The conversation between them strolled from specters and half-humans to zombies as the “lumpen proletariat”, speculating about why the vampire has become a sexy youth, “glimmering in the sun” instead of melting in it. Fishing for the common threads, Atwood asked her interviewees when they first started reading Edgar Allan Poe. Alderman, it turned out, had his stories read to her by her parents at the age of nine. “What peculiar parents,” Atwood remarked, notably delighted, and like so often the audience exploded in laughter. “There probably are not any monsters, zombies or centaurs,” she continued. “So they must be metaphors. What are they metaphors for?”

No nonsense. It was clear that we were in the hands of someone whose work deals with the most contemporary of anxieties: pollution, corporate greed, biological engineering, or as she’s said in essays: the what if’s of our age. The replies she received were equally candid. It is to do with fears, said Alderman – what we can’t quite put our finger on. As someone who was given Poe to read at the age of nine, she should know.

On the following Monday morning, with my expectations heightened by yesterday’s treat, I went to “Horror and Weirdness: a Scottish Peculiarity”. Atwood and Valerie Martin were this time joined by crime writer Ian Rankin to discuss what it is about Scotland that inspires such an impressive list of dark tales. After exactly an hour, (Atwood is punctual: “This is the witch hour, at which we shall all leave our human forms and go back to being writers.”) I emerged with a list of anecdotes to explore, books I regret not having read yet, and feeling strangely proud of my decision to move to this wondrous city two years ago. I had no idea that David Hume once got stuck in the Nor Loch – Edinburgh’s famous mid-town sewer – or that Muriel Spark’s husband shot her in the foot. Then there was the second sight: “Some of us believe you have it,” said Valerie Martin smugly, turning to Atwood. This, of course, lead to more talk about witch-burning, writing about ghosts without believing in them, and of course: Edgar Allan Poe.

A few hours later the queue once again snaked its tail all the way around the festival square. It was time to zip up this bookish month with not only one, but two of this year’s Guest Selectors: “Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood: storytellers go head to head”. “I don’t think there is a chair for this event”, I said to my friend while entering the Baille Gifford Theatre. “I think maybe they are too good at chairing themselves,” she replied. The conversation began with reminiscence. Both authors praised the importance of comics in their youths, and of libraries. They asked each other what made them want to learn to read as children, and it turned out to be the same thing: because adults never read for long enough. As an encounter between two writers on equal footing, the dynamics of this event turned out to be the most interesting and difficult. Afterwards, the slightly critical comments could be heard all around:  “He did take over, didn’t he?”, “She was the one asking questions, while he went on about himself!” What did it mean, then, to select, and curate?

Maybe it meant to ask the right questions. Being a great author doesn’t make you a good chair or interviewer, but neither should one underestimate the effect of spontaneous talk, and shared curiosity. Affinity, even. Here were two magnificent writers each doing this in their own way. Atwood never allows for an evasive answer, much like her writing seldom does, and every now and then a comment made the audience laugh out loud, while she discretely giggled behind a covered mouth. Gaiman tells stories, encourages creativity and inspires courage in art. All the while, an interest in that which “looks human but is not quite human”, seemed to bring them together: the almost pathological need of opening doors you are told to stay away from. Having attended the previous two events, I smiled when Atwood finally mentioned how the librarians of her childhood had placed Edgar Allan Poe’s work in the children’s library. “Did you read Poe?” she asked Gaiman. And it turns out he did. It turns out it was the right question.




Book Review: TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

transatlantic

“Truly, universally, relations stop nowhere,” Henry James wrote, and it’s a writer’s hair-pulling job to draw “the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.”

As to threads and voyages, Colum McCann’s new novel TransAtlantic has the potential to go on forever, rippling sideways into an incomprehensible nothing and everything. Much of its accomplishment lies in the way it knows when to stop, pause at the right time, and when it does, it not only ties things up for the reader, but point towards the severed coasts, and what might lie beyond.  Happily, as Henry James put it, we close the final page.

“A brand new thought: Transatlantic airmail. She tests the phrase, scratching it out on the paper, over and over, transatlantic, trans atlas, transatlantic. The distance finally broken.”

In 1998, American senator George Mitchell flies back and forth from New York to London and up to Belfast, living, not sleeping, and sharpening hundreds of minimal phrasings for a fragile Northern Irish peace process. On a tennis court he speaks to an old woman from Newfoundland who lost her grandson in the Troubles. She is the granddaughter of Lily Duggan, an Irish maid who stepped off a ship in New York in the late 1840s. In 1845, a twenty-seven year old American disembarks in Dublin.  He is Frederick Douglass, freed slave, abolitionist and soon to become one of the great transatlantic intellectual. While in Ireland, he stays in the house where Lily works. McCann’s novel collects crossings like curious stones in a traveller’s pocket, to the point where the passage becomes the starting point, a home in itself, or as George Mitchell calls his British Airways airplane cabin: “this nation of cloud and air”.

“How had he ended up here, on the edge of the Irish Sea? What was it that brought such distances, rowing upwards into the past?”

This level of ambition along with the sheer number of characters could drive the reader straight to frantically sketching family trees, but where many multi-generational novels confuse, this one waits. It asks questions about belonging, mobility, and listens patiently. It has been a while since I was given time to grow used to each character in such a carefully expansive rhythm. The chapter structure, focusing on one major character at a time, has its problems. You are not rushed into a life, and by the time you leave it for another, you have started to care. McCann doesn’t simply alternate between parallel narratives and he never revisits a voice after he has left it.

The pacing does, occasionally, interfere with the process of reading. When introducing new chapters the text is sometimes so fast, the perspective so self-consciously tentative, that the story feels like the writing – the actual attempt to get to know your characters – rather than the finished product. You can imagine an author tapping out the scenes. On the other hand, because McCann mixes historical figures with imagined ones, this slow dipping into lives invites you to explore them as different people who share the crossing – the living in the middle – and in this way they are all made his own.

McCann’s sentences are experimental enough to make you want to savour this or that sentence, underline it, keep it. His imagery is inventive, but precise and in the service of the story. As a book that deals with themes of migration, even though almost exclusively a Western experience, it reminds us of the implicit violence behind displacement: war, poverty, and the ever present Atlantic triangle of the slave trade with reverberations into the present day. And yet, a peace process is also a catalyst for movement, as are emotional connections. McCann’s novel shows both, and how difficult they are to separate. What came first, and who started moving? What is origin?

“New York appeared like a cough of blood. The sun was going down behind the warehouses and tall buildings. She saw men on the wharfside in the ruin of themselves. A man barked questions. Name. Age. Birthplace. Speak up, he said. Speak up, goddamnit.”

Transatlantic fiction, or literature based on and over the puddle, has of course been around as long as the crossings themselves. TransAtlantic as a novel defies the idea of setting by focusing on the experience of passage, and there are elements in the book which prove how very difficult it must be to remain there, to not get lost. McCann sometimes reverts to traditional plot lines and easy symbolic objects – a letter, a house – which tie the narrative together as if using a life line. He still does what the best transatlantic literature manages: to complicate the idea of start and finish, centre and a periphery, proving that any origin is only imagined and the relations endless. Family history is its own geography. Reading McCann, then, is like looking at the diagram which one of the characters, the murdered grandson, imagines as a symbol for his family’s migratory pattern: “a nest in a tree as seen against a background of high-speed cinematography”, a home in movement.

Foyles.