Great Circle (Penguin Random House 2021) by Maggie Shipstead is a complex, intricate, soaring, all-encompassing puzzle of a book. While I thoroughly enjoyed her previous novel Seating Arrangements, this is in a whole other stratosphere. The writing is fiercely good, the story is compelling and the characters are unforgettable. Like Sarah Winman with Still Life, Shipstead creates an entire world that we, as readers, fall into without hesitation, knowing from the first line that we are in the hands of a master. She proceeds to take us around the world and back and forth in time – a couple of chapters even transport us to hundreds or thousands of years ago! – and we are quite happy to go along, trusting that she will eventually bring us full circle, as indeed she does.
This is the story of Marian Graves, born a twin, rescued as a babe in arms from the flames of a sinking ship, raised wild, a daredevil pilot, a World War Two Spitfire hero, an adventurer and an independent woman. In 1950, she pursues her dream, to fly in a great circle around the globe. But her plane crashes and in desperation she writes one last entry in her log book.
Half a century later, that log book has inspired a movie script and a young Hollywood actress is set to play the part of Marian. As she researches her role, she uncovers a great mystery about the missing pilot.
Obsession, ambition, love, friendship, betrayal, sacrifice, courage, determination, subjugation, coercive control, family, history, freedom, tradition, prejudice, survival…this book has it all. I was certain I wouldn’t like a story about flying/planes/pilots but of course Great Circle is about much more than that, and once I began reading I was completely hooked on this rambling, eccentric, unbelievable tale that is simultaneously incredibly detailed and also fascinating, accessible and easy to follow. Dialogue, description, characterisation – this book is a masterclass in writing, with a stunning and shocking conclusion. Absolute hard recommend.