A review of Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy
A couple of years ago I read Richard Powers’ The Overstory, and I have never looked at a tree the same way since. A similar sleight of hand is achieved by Charlotte McConaghy in Migrations, a searing and highly accomplished debut novel that takes on the problem of climate change from a different angle: species decline. Before reading Migrations I had rarely (perhaps never) expended a moment’s thought on Arctic terns, but now I find myself thinking of them – and all birds in general – through a slightly altered, sharper lens.
Mildly dystopian, Migrations is set in an undated future in which most of the wildlife on Earth has vanished. All major species, from monkeys to lions, have been extinguished by climate change, hunting and habitat loss wrought by humans; during the course of the novel, a lone surviving wolf is found and taken to a Scottish sanctuary, where, lacking a partner, she can serve nothing but educational purposes. The seas have been fished to the point that commercial vessels are banned to save what is left, and the skies are largely devoid of birds. Yet the true extent of the devastation is revealed to us only gradually – aside from these changes, the world of the novel could be the one we live in now. It is a twist that has been well managed by McConaghy, who avoids imagining other details of the future – technologies might be the natural choice, or major world events – and thereby allows the reader to feel instantly at home, albeit with a growing sense of discomfort that something about this world is not quite right.
Well executed, too, is the emotional pitch of Migrations, which strikes a tricky-to-find balance between grief, resignation and fury at what the planet has become. The message is abundantly clear, yet McConaghy manages never to be didactic – a tough job for an author setting out to write a novel whose backbone is a journey in pursuit of the world’s last Arctic terns. Her success in this regard is largely due to Franny Stone, the novel’s incredibly strong narrator, who seems to emit a kind of force field that makes all other subjects – even climate change – feel rather secondary, at least while reading. Only after stepping back from the novel did I feel able to grasp the bigger picture properly, but it was this core message that stayed with me, long after Franny’s influence had begun to fade.
From the opening scene on the coast of Greenland to a dramatic denouement in the Antarctic (which, crucially, leaves us not without a sense of hope), Migrations follows Franny Stone on her quest to track possibly the last ever journey of the Arctic terns. These seabirds, which nest mainly in Iceland, Greenland and the Netherlands, are famed for having the longest migratory path in the world: their annual round-trip from the northern hemisphere to the Antarctic involves between 44,000 and 56,000 miles of flying. It is an extreme journey to make, and tracking it from a boat seems equally absurd, yet Franny manages to convince both the reader and Ennis Malone, captain of an Alaskan fishing vessel, that it is of vital importance if there is to be any hope of conserving the species. As the journey proceeds, however, from the icy shores of Greenland to stormy waters around Newfoundland, then down along the distant coastline of South America, it becomes clear that Franny isn’t necessarily who she says she is, and that the real migration under observation here is her own, not the birds’.
Migrations is narrated in short, sharp sections all bound together by a dreamlike quality yet simmering with emotional tension. While one strand details Franny’s journey south, the chronology of her migration is constantly intercut with sections set mainly in Galway, but also some in Australia. Franny’s past is a traumatic one, full of long-buried secrets, which are gradually exposed alongside a retelling of her wild, impulsive, deeply loving marriage to Niall, a biology professor at Galway University who was the first person to introduce her to Arctic terns. Niall’s rage and despair at the destruction of the natural world is passed on to Franny, but despite featuring only in flashbacks it is his voice that rings loudest in terms of conservation. Though Franny feels a strong affinity with the ocean and cares about the health of the planet, she is a little too wrapped up in her own dilemmas to be a true advocate for any other creature. Niall is the character who utters sentences like (of the terns), ‘Nothing will ever be as brave again,’ whereas Franny’s modus operandi is to feel ‘an anger to swallow the world’. Their outlooks are similar, yet different enough to create an interesting character study and the interpersonal tensions from which the novel lives.
The scope of Migrations is quite frankly enormous – McConaghy would have been ambitious enough to write about Franny’s journey and the destruction of the natural world, yet she has chosen to add layer upon layer of thorny, human-focused issues. Admittedly, these are gripping, and the strong characterisation made me feel invested in Franny’s story, even if at times I wanted to shake her out of yet another self-centred tantrum. The implication of the narrative is striking – we are usually so absorbed in ourselves that we fail to see what is going on around us, whether in terms of the planet or other people – but at times the drama was heaped on to excess, making me slightly lose my faith in the workings of the plot. Another mild disappointment is that the device McConaghy employs to conceal Franny’s real reason for her journey (and the true state of her relationship with Niall) has been used often enough to make it unfortunately transparent. (At the risk of spoiling things, anyone who has read We Need To Talk About Kevin is likely to have this problem too.) With this element of mystery lacking, the narrative dramatics could occasionally seem overblown.
Having said this, Migrations is an easy book to become absorbed in, and certainly leaves a lasting impression. Though perhaps trying to make her narrative do too much, McConaghy is a gifted storyteller and especially skilled when it comes to setting. Her descriptive passages are lyrical and atmospheric, without ever being too heavy on the adjectives, and that the story remained largely believable while conveying an important, convincing message is an achievement not to be sniffed at. I also enjoyed spending time in Franny Stone’s head; she is a flawed and thus authentic character, who won me over with her singular determination and simultaneous need for protection. As a literary character, she – and in many ways McConaghy’s novel as a whole – is a near-perfect reflection of an Arctic tern: brave, distinctive, fragile, and driven by a force far stronger than her.