Monday, February 7, 2022

Charlotte McConaghy, MIGRATIONS

This is a powerful, beautifully written novel set in the near(ish) future when climate change has drastically affected the earth and rendered most species extinct. Franny Stone, the protagonist and an avid studier of birds, convinces the captain of a fishing boat to take her along on his journey south, claiming that her tagged birds will lead them to the ever-diminishing "big catch" of fish. In fresh, poetic language, Franny describes their journey as well as her past. She explains she grew up in "a wooden house so close to the sea I was able to tune my swift child's pulse to the shh shh of the neap and spring tides." Lovely descriptions are sprinkled on nearly every page: "the cold is familiar and savage," "the keening of the wind," "[we] watch dark stain the sky."

Some readers had difficulty with how much this book jumped around from present to various pasts, but that didn't bother me so much. The author wrote in a way that made me trust that they would all fold together by the end.

But [*spoilers ahead*] I found myself a bit overwhelmed by all the grief and past trauma. I know it's what people write now ... it has become de rigueur for everyone from writers of literary fiction to Ted Lasso to uncover a backstory element such as an abusive father or a lost mother or a near death experience in their childhood. I find myself growing restless in the face of it, especially when it isn't necessary to generate narrative power. In this book, Franny experiences at least 8 different serious traumas [*spoiler alert*] that we find out belatedly, as they take place before the timeframe of the story: childhood poverty and deprivation, a feeling of not belonging, a mother who abandons her, a father in jail, the death of her child, the death of her beloved husband, the death of two other people, and jail time and the violence that entails.

Early on she explains, "one way or another, when I reach Antarctica and my migration is finished, I have decided to die" and though it feels a bit melodramatic on page 27, by the end of the book I feel like her redemption and the happyish ending almost seems as unlikely as all the trauma that caused her original suicidal wish.

This isn't to say that horrifying things don't happen to people, and sometimes they happen in multiples. I wrote my PhD diss on Victorian railway disasters because I was interested in how the experiential category of "trauma" (and PTSD) evolved out of early medical and legal discourse used to address the bizarre and often belated injuries suffered by train wreck victims. The subject fascinates me, and I think we need to continue to examine trauma and its aftereffects on the psyche and the body (as well as to resist the tendency to think of every grief as traumatic; the term loses its usefulness). I just felt like I was getting a bit hammered by it in this novel. Other people will feel differently, I'm sure. This said, I would definitely recommend this book. There's so much good here -- it's eloquent and poetic, a book that made me think about our fragile world, and a page-turner all at once.

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