Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Wednesday, February 5, 2020: Maximum Shelf: Migrations

Flatiron: Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy

Flatiron: Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy

Flatiron: Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy

Flatiron: Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy


by Charlotte McConaghy

"The animals are dying. Soon we will be alone here."

In a near future in which climate change has caused a catastrophic number of animal extinctions, Franny Stone, a woman haunted by her own stormy past and wandering soul, is determined to follow the last reported colony of Arctic terns in Charlotte McConaghy's beautifully haunting adult fiction debut, Migrations.

"I spent the first decade of my life in a wooden house so close to the sea I was able to tune my swift child's pulse to the shhh shhh of the neap and spring tides." Much like a modern-day selkie, Franny has always felt as one with the natural world around her, making friends with the crows and delighting in the frigid ocean water of the Irish coast. Unable to stay in one place, she could be found roaming the countryside; "she's got itchy feet and that's a tragedy," Franny's neighbors used to say to her mother.

Now a young woman, Franny Stone is still in motion, running from the tragedies in her past and toward her adopted purpose in life: to follow the migration of the Arctic tern, the bird with "the longest migration of any animal," to study the effect of climate change on their flight habits. She's in awe of "the beauty of delicate white wings that carry a creature so far. I think of the courage of this and I could cry with it." After successfully attaching trackers to three of the birds, Franny convinces the captain of a fishing vessel, Ennis Malone, to take her on board with his crew and follow the terns on their global trek from Greenland to Antarctica. In return, Franny guiltily promises Ennis an ever-elusive big fishing haul: the terns will follow the fish, and they will follow the terns. Though she finds Ennis's work--hunting wild creatures in a world teeming with mass extinctions--horrific, she needs a ship to accomplish this "impossible, foolish fantasy."

Immersed in her own single-minded determination, Franny focuses on the tasks of the ship and on writing to her absent husband, Niall, a biology professor in Ireland. "The pile of letters to send him grows fat with the weight of my thoughts. I try to come to terms with our relationship, with the mistakes I made and the twisting paths we chose to take." But her devotion to the birds never wavers as she watches the three blinking dots on her laptop that mark the terns on their dangerous journey. As both man and nature impede their path--a wary crew, violent ocean storms, the global recall of all commercial fishing vessels, police searches--Franny's mission continues to consume her. "A will is a powerful thing, and mine has been called terrible." As the perils continue, she and Ennis develop a deepening mutual respect, each harboring a desperation to fix the broken lives they have left behind. The work becomes so centrally a part of her that Franny's purpose and will to live have become one and the same, and together she and Ennis fight to complete her pilgrimage, sailing to the ends of the world on little more than faith, desperation and a sense of finality: "One way or another, when I reach Antarctica and my migration is finished, I have decided to die."

Spanning oceans and decades, Franny's physical and emotional journeys are at times devastating and, at others, surprisingly, undeniably hopeful. Through flashbacks to Franny's childhood in Ireland, her intense romance and sudden elopement with Niall, the search for her mother (missing since childhood) and her bleak years in prison for a crime she does not remember, McConaghy carefully peels back the layers of her life and then meticulously weaves them together again, giving greater context and intensity to Franny's current pilgrimage to the Antarctic Circle. As Franny searches simultaneously for "a place to belong" and "whatever cruel thing drove me to leave people and places and everything, always," her unreliable narrative begins to reveal the truth behind her desperate search for redemption as raw emotion and memory leak through.

Australian novelist McConaghy paints a feverish, evocative picture of our crumbling world balance. Incorporating science and conservancy research, McConaghy doesn't oversimplify the crisis and, despite its vastness, it never overpowers Franny's own development. Even the obvious judgment of humanity's guilt in the extinction crisis--"[species] are being violently and indiscriminately slaughtered by our indifference"--receives nuanced revelation as conservationist Franny discovers an unlikely connection with fisherman Ennis.

Despite the dark nature of the story, McConaghy's novel manages to capture moments of lightness that keep hope and wonder in beauty alive for both her characters and readers. Brimming with stunning imagery and raw emotion, Migrations is the incredible story of personal redemption, self-forgiveness and hope for the future in the face of a world on the brink of collapse. --Jennifer Oleinik

Flatiron Books, $26.99, hardcover, 272p., 9781250204028, August 25, 2020

Flatiron: Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy

Charlotte McConaghy: There Is Power in Hope

(photo: Emma Daniels)

Australian author Charlotte McConaghy has been writing from a young age. In addition to eight books previously published in Australia, she has both a graduate degree in Screenwriting and an M.A. in Screen Arts, and she  worked in script development for film and television. While roaming the Irish coastline seeking her ancestral roots and watching the birds, she got the idea for Migrations, her first work of adult literary fiction. Migrations has already sold in more than a dozen countries and will be available in the U.S. from Flatiron Books on August 25, 2020.

Migrations is set in a near-future world when climate change and human-caused environmental destruction have forced the extinctions of more than 70% of wild animal species. What drew you to this point in time?

I chose the very near future because I think it's the most frightening and tragic setting for a book about losses so present in our lives that they still haunt us. The world of Migrations is almost identical to ours, and that's what disturbs me. That we are, in fact, living through an extinction crisis right now--animals are dying--and those in power are doing nothing about it. We are very close to living in this bleak, lonely world where we are the only living creatures that remain. I can't think of anything worse, to be honest. By stepping only slightly into the future I hoped to make the crisis all the more immediate and alarming, to really show what it would be like to watch the wild creatures of the jungle or desert or mountains or snow all fade away. If I'd gone any further into the future, I would have had to create more of a dystopian setting, because the impact of losing our biodiversity will be catastrophic to the way we live, and I didn't want to show that part. I wanted to draw a familiar picture and have it be all the more confronting.

Your protagonist, Franny Stone, is on a journey to follow the last of the Arctic terns on their long migration to Antarctica. Why did you choose this particular species, and why does Franny connect with birds so deeply?

I chose the Arctic terns because they have the longest migration of any animal on earth: the distance they will fly in their lifespans is equivalent to flying to the moon and back three times. This was astonishingly beautiful to me, and I thought it would have the same impact on my protagonist--she, too, is a migratory creature who never stops moving. She is inspired by the courage of these little birds and their ability to keep flying when others grow weary. The path the terns took also provided a dramatic path for Franny to follow--a sea journey all the way from the Arctic to the Antarctic.

Franny's obsession with following the Arctic terns seems to be equaled only by her overwhelming love of the sea, so much so that the sea is nearly a character in its own right. Did you plan for the ocean to be such a significant player or did it develop that way as you wrote?

I always knew this would be a story of the sea. Franny is a woman deeply connected to it--that came organically, almost without me making a decision about it--and I didn't feel the need for there to be any reason for it. Her love of the ocean could be inexplicable, as we all love randomly and mysteriously. But this thing she loves, which is a source of joy for her, becomes a source of immense danger when the plot of the story takes her on a perilous sea journey. Part of the trouble with Franny, I suppose--she is wilder than most, more connected to nature, perhaps, and either because of this or despite it she is also self-destructive.

Franny's personal journey spans both oceans and decades. How did you navigate balancing her individual emotional journey alongside the physically greater losses of the world as a whole?

One predicated the other, I think. The only way I could tap into the losses of the world as a whole was to use an individual emotional journey; otherwise I think it would have become too big, too unwieldy, and would have been harder for a reader to relate to. I needed a character who felt the losses keenly so that we could feel them, too. But it's also true that we can't focus on our fear or our sadness about the environment at all times; that's not normal and would make it impossible to function, so Franny had to be living her life, too. To balance these elements, I made her personal journey separate from the crisis during her backstory, and then I made it converge with the crisis in the front story. In the end, the truth is that I didn't set out to write a book about climate change. I was simply trying to write a woman's journey to find belonging, a family and ultimately redemption. The backdrop of the extinction crisis just made sense to me because it's what we're all facing today.

Climate crisis has been, and continues to be, a major developing news story worldwide. Did continuing science and news coverage of the climate crisis affect your story's development?

I started writing Migrations about five years ago, when we'd well and truly known about the climate crisis for a long time, but it wasn't as dominant in the global conversation. Extinction Rebellion didn't exist yet; we had not yet met Greta Thunberg. But I had read a shocking article about how 60% of the world's wild animals have died in the past 50 years and I immediately knew this was what I had to write about. As more terrible science and coverage poured in, it only seemed to support what I was writing, and with every passing day it looks like the bleak world of the book is--tragically--coming to life.  

There is a lot of darkness in your novel as your characters work through difficult pasts and the Earth itself struggles to thrive, and yet ultimately Migrations is about hope and even redemption. Do you think there is hope of overcoming the climate crisis in the real world or is it more about how we find the courage to survive the inevitable?

We must have hope, and we must not give up the fight. There is still time. There is wilderness to save, animals to rescue. There is love between us, and compassion. Even small day-to-day choices add up have an enormous impact. Consider our waste, consider what we eat, consider the products we buy. Consider how we treat each other and the animals we share this planet with. As Greta says: "No one is too small to make a difference." Migrations is about a woman who has given up hope but, with courage, is able to regain it. It's about trying to defy the sense of personal hopelessness, the sense that it's all too big, it's too late, and the pervasive fear that we are powerless. We're not. There is power in hope. --Jennifer Oleinik

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