By Charlotte McConaghy, Flatiron Books, 2020
It’s not often that I read a book that grabs me by the lapels of my shirt and pulls me in to face an imaginary world that almost could be real.
Migrations has been called a dystopian novel because it is set in a bleak future. But that future is almost upon us.
Franny Stone, the novel’s protagonist, is an ornithologist who, at the novel’s starts, captures three wild terns in the Arctic circle ( their warm tiny hearts going pit-a-pat) to put tracking sensors on their legs. Terns fly each year from the Arctic to the Antarctic and return six months later. It is the longest migration undertaken by any bird. Franny has to find a way to follow them, and she does this by persuading a fishing boat’s captain to take her aboard. It’s a huge responsibility for the captain, as Franny is completely untrained for dangerous deep-water ship life. The lure? The birds fly toward their food source, fish. And fishing is now banned.
In McConaghy’s imagination, almost all the birds and animals on earth have gone extinct through over-hunting. But Ennis, the ship’s captain, is obsessed with fishing. It is all he knows how to do, but more than that, like Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, this captain can’t stop, despite the dangers.
In fact, this book reminded me very much of Moby Dick. Its huge concerns, which go way beyond the individuals in the story, are echoed in McConaghy’s description of the terrifying storms at sea, the tininess of human beings in the immensity of nature. And yet, tiny as each individual human being is, collectively we have wiped the planet of so many other species which share our blue Earth with us.
McConaghy’s language is gorgeous and evocative. Her characters, as well as her plotline, are original and compelling. Franny’s story, too, is about restlessness and migration, about the search for a true, safe home. References to Irish legends abound in this book, adding to its mythic quality. The other day, I heard McConaghy speak at a book club run by Orinda Books, a wonderful bookstore in Orinda, California. McConaghy wrote her first book at fourteen, she said and published eight YA novels before tackling the “book she needed to write” about the threat of climate change. She’s still young, and a writer to watch.