It’s not often that a book actually gives me goosebumps, but Migrations (Penguin Random House 2021) by Charlotte McConaghy had me shivering with pleasure all the way through. This slim tale is a genre-bending mix of literary fiction and environmental activism with the tension and suspense of a gripping thriller. Heartbreaking, moving and tender, this is a story about survival and extinction, about climate change and murder, about family and belonging, about love and sacrifice and compassion and hope.
The book reads as if it is set today, but it quickly becomes apparent that it is sometime in the near future when most of the larger animals of the world have died out in the wild, and many of the smaller animals, birds and reptiles too. Humans have wrought significant and irreparable damage on the earth in their constant quest of consumerism and greed. Franny Stone arrives in Greenland with a purpose – to follow the last of the remaining Arctic terns on what she knows might be their final migration to Antarctica. She wheedles her way onto a fishing trawler (themselves a rare thing, because of the disappearance of most of the world’s fish), with her research gear and her mission. The crew are mistrustful of Franny, and this only grows as her history and story unspool.
The story jumps backwards and forwards in time in Franny’s life, and we are given tantalising glimpses of events from her past and the people she has loved and lost. The mystery deepens with each passing chapter, as we realise that she is running from something truly terrible, a tragedy, or more than one, her life littered with failings and disappointments. She is a woman who is incapable of staying. She is always on the move, always leaving behind the people she cares about. But she is nevertheless searching for redemption and determined to fulfil her own promise to herself.
The writing is superb – taut and compelling, with engaging characters and beautiful descriptions of the environment, both the land and the sea. Migrations pays homage to a vanishing world, where so many of nature’s wondrous and beautiful miracles are disappearing because of the actions of humans. Despite the highly literary nature of both the language and the themes, this is an incredible page-turner, pulling the reader relentlessly forward as the tension ratchets up with every chapter, and the uncertainty about Franny’s past – and her current project – heighten. Like an icy plunge into the freezing cold waters of Franny’s sea, reading Migrations is to become immersed in a shocking and unsettling place and then to make a decision … to either surrender to the engulfing atmosphere of the water and settle down to a quiet end, or to suddenly kick and rise to the surface, coughing, and gulping in huge lungfuls of clean, life-giving air.
A haunting novel of ghosts, a clarion call to save the planet, a timely and perhaps prescient tale, a story of one woman running from her past, unable to forgive or forget. A remarkable read.