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Charlotte McConaghy's 'Migrations' is an expansive novel for isolated times

a devil's bookshelf

4.5/5 Blue Devils 

Birds. Letters. Ice. Football jerseys. Fishing nets. Picture frames. Feathers. Whiskey. Oceans. All of these seemingly mundane images unite in the poetic whirlwind that is Charlotte McConaghy’s debut U.S. novel “Migrations,” currently being adapted for the screen by Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch. In this compact yet vast story, McConaghy shows how nature and human life coexist in terrific and tumultuous ways. As much as humans isolate nature as a separate, inexplicable force, we are more embedded in the natural world than we may ever fully comprehend. To narrate her protagonist’s chaotic life, McConaghy arranges the novel in three parts and uses continuous flashbacks categorized into sections. Her most central focus, however, is emphasizing the urgency of the present for the climate and her characters. 

In one of these repeated flashbacks, the reader is transported to a small, wooden house by the sea of Galway, Ireland. This is where protagonist Franny Stone first learns of pain and loss. In a mutual abandonment, a 10-year-old Franny and her mother are separated. Franny is then sent to live with her paternal grandmother in Australia, and in search of a new home and fresh start, she discovers her innate nomadic spirit, which can be both unruly and destructive. Although she is sent away to be taken care of and protected, Franny is built for wandering. McConaghy makes clear that these early, distant childhood experiences are unlike fond memories her readers may have of their own upbringing — they exist as raw and cold memories in Franny’s mind.

Years later, Franny returns to Ireland with an Irish-Australian accent, one of her only longstanding connections to the homelands of both her detached mother and father. Unbound to any identity, family or home, Franny carves a path with no distinguishable trajectory —  until she meets a man named Niall Lynch. An ornithologist and professor of a university class Franny sits in on, Lynch dreams of searching for the final flock of the Arctic tern bird species and tracing their distance-defying migration, which is the longest of all animals. With Franny’s newfound awe in the tern’s mystifying capabilities, the start of the adventure plot begins. Much like these birds, Franny channels her own biological instinct and tenacity, striking a beautiful balance between animal behavior and human behavior. 

We follow Franny on her journey to Greenland to find Ennis Malone, the Captain of the Saghani. This is the seventh fishing vessel Franny tries to board to somehow accomplish her mission of tracking the tern migration. At first, there is shared skepticism around her goal: Why should she be allowed on board when she has no interest in fishing? However, with tactical convincing, Franny compromises with Ennis that if she can successfully trace this migration, it will inevitably lead the Saghani’s crew of seven to a bounty of fish. As one of the remaining few ships allowed to legally fish for the Atlantic herring, the Saghani becomes Franny’s temporary home as she follows three wild terns with technological trackers that she secures on their bodies. 

I am a reader obsessed with visuals, and the novel accomplishes this task beyond compare. Through McConaghy’s words, readers see icebergs melt and wear away, feel bloody hands from too many tied knots and experience the vastness of some of the most remote places on the planet. 

As the novel progresses, the seemingly linear mission of a bird’s flightpath grows much more convoluted and intricate. McConaghy shows that oftentimes, when we focus on phenomena much greater than ourselves, we are secretly trying to escape our own personal, internal struggles. Franny slowly reveals the truths lurking in her dark past, riddled with both emotional and legal consequences she now hopes to escape. As she begins this promising journey, she simultaneously battles with deep regret of her past actions, manifesting in horrible nightmares and compulsive choices. Most importantly, the reader learns more about Niall Lynch, his and Franny’s days of intrigue and, ultimately, their marriage. Beyond Franny’s lifelong fascination with the natural world, Niall Lynch is the spirit that drives her to complete this mission, even though it is often extremely taxing and dangerous.

If you would like to read a novel about normalcy and the conventional, this book might be a challenge. However, do not be discouraged: that is all the more of a reason to have your own copy. With Franny Stone’s narrative gaps, I too was taken aback by the variety and gravity of the novel’s different twists. Only a few chapters in, the reader immediately learns that Franny experiences an interior, often self-inflicted destruction that mirrors the bleakness of impending animal extinction. While she is her own greatest advocate, Franny is also the biggest threat to each of her connections and commitments. In this sense, McConaghy explains the health of the planet through the afflicted mental health of her protagonist.

I give this book 4.5/5 blue devils, due to an easily-predicted ending. If an author raises the stakes, I want to save the reveal for the final few pages. The forecast of the ending did not necessarily change my reading experience, but I do think it is important for an author to leave surprises undiscovered or uninterpreted until the final pages. 

The central drawback were the moments of sudden and almost too unbelievable drama. McConaghy’s most effective descriptions were those set in the simple moments of the novel — Franny’s naturalistic observations, everyday conversations and times of empty space and silence. These are the instances where this story comes to life. Therefore, because I deeply enjoyed these moments, I was thrown into shock in the others. I often wished to be back in McConaghy’s more believable realm. However, it is fiction, and I do appreciate occasional, implausible scenes. Without these interwoven pictures of discomfort and danger, there would not be a haunting story like “Migrations.” While we are all stuck at home, this story of an escape and a search beyond ourselves enables us to travel far and wide. 

Bates Crawford is a Trinity junior. Her book column, “A Devil’s Bookshelf,” runs bimonthly and she rates reads on a 0-5 Blue Devil scale. Bates recommends books to her fellow students for free-time reading when (or if) they have spare time in their busy Duke lives.

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