Book Review: MIGRATIONS by Charlotte McConaghy

Migrations is a stunningly beautiful novel about a woman who has always been running—from her childhood, her mistakes, her memories—and this time, she’s traveling from Greenland to Antarctica, following the world’s last flock of Arctic terns on their final migration. 

As the novel opens, Franny Stone approaches the captain of the only boat who might still take her onboard to follow the terns. She manages to persuade Ennis Malone to let her join the crew of the Saghani by telling him that she, via the terns, will show him where the fish are. The oceans’ fish, like all other wildlife on the planet, are disappearing or already gone.

While Migrations may be described as dystopian fiction, it is on the very edge, and it’s a brilliant spot: It has the feel of a contemporary novel, set during a time at which the world is still recognizable, only it’s not. Every so often, we’re reminded of the way the world has changed: “There are no more monkeys in the world, no chimps or apes or gorillas, nor indeed any animal that once lived in rain forests. The big cats of the savannas haven’t been seen in years … There are no bears in the once-frozen north, or reptiles in the too-hot south, and the last known wolf in the world died in captivity last winter.”

This terrible new world is rendered all the more poignant as the novel moves back and forth in time, in both the narrative and its extinction spectrum: In one flashback, a lone gray wolf is discovered in Alaksa, and at one point in the Saghani’s journey, commercial fishing is outlawed, ostensibly to save the last few remaining fish in the oceans. In Yellowstone, six years earlier, “The deer have all died. The bears and wolves went long ago, already too few to survive the inevitable … There is no birdsong as I walk among the trees and it is catastrophically wrong. I regret coming here, to where it should be more alive than anywhere. Instead it is a graveyard.”

Migrations is the best type of environmental fiction in that it shows us, in eloquent and vivid prose, what is at stake and how the world will change once the animals are lost. The ways in which these losses are both part of the main narrative as well as woven in more subtly throughout is effective and haunting.

Franny Stone is at once fragile and as tough as they come. She can swim in subzero waters, hold her own with hard-drinking sailors, and meets the crew’s rigorous demands in her pursuit of the terns. She’s also a prisoner of her own tragedies and the memories that linger, and as the narrative follows the Saghani’s journey south, it weaves through Franny’s intriguing and often troubled past.

Born in Australia to an Irish mother, Franny has always been a wanderer, driven by abandonment and neglect as well as by the feeling that she doesn’t quite belong. “In Australia I sound Irish. In Ireland everyone thinks I’m Australian. From the beginning I’ve been flickering between, unable to hold fast to either.”

The novel steps back to tell the story of Franny’s whirlwind romance with her husband, Niall, from its origins and along its complicated journey to the unsent letters she writes him from the Saghani. There’s also the unfolding mystery of a recent tragedy that lands her in prison, literally. Meanwhile, in the present, the ship navigates its nail-biting race to the Antarctic, a voyage that Franny does not plan to survive.  

As an animal lover and vegetarian, Franny is conflicted about being onboard a fishing vessel, even if it’s the only way to achieve her goal. “Am I really going to stand here and watch as these creatures are slaughtered?” she asks herself when the harvest begins. “How are they different from the birds, whose lives I might very well give my own to protect?”

The language in Migrations is lovely and poetic with its reverence for nature; Franny keenly feels the sorrows of being a contributor to the destruction of the planet and its aftermath. When one of the fishermen comments on her weariness, she thinks: “It’s not life I’m tired of, with its astonishing ocean currents and layers of ice and all the delicate feathers that make up a wing. It’s myself.” 

Migrations is a beautifully rendered story of a woman’s journey through a world in which we’ve lost the animals we still, in the real world, have a chance to save. (In her acknowledgments, McConaghy writes, “I want to acknowledge the wild creatures of this earth and say that this book was written for them out of sadness and regret for those that have been wiped out and for love of those that remain. I truly, deeply hope that the world without animals depicted in Migrations does not come to pass.”) Franny’s story is uniquely her own, while the world in which she endures is one we hope never to see, one we still have the ability to change for the better. As Franny notes: “A life’s impact can be measured by what it gives and what it leaves behind, but it can also be measured by what it steals from the world.”