Charlotte McConaghy’s debut ‘Migrations’ depicts one woman’s devastatingly beautiful journey

Migrations is Australian author Charlotte McConaghy’s debut novel, and it is an incredibly emotive and beautifully-written tale of journeys, both necessary and dangerous, both human and animalistic. I came across Migrations on the increasingly influential platform that is BookTok, a particular side of TikTok dedicated to the world of books. In particular, horror booktoker Brandon Baker (@baker.reads) included the novel on a list of some of the saddest books he’s ever read, aptly calling it ‘beautiful but devastating.’ It wasn’t only Brandon’s short review that drew me in, but also the book’s gorgeous cover. His TikTok video featured the cover that’s pictured below, that spotlights a committee of Arctic terns flying over the icy landscape of the Antarctic. Alternatively, the copy I purchased is adorned by the cover featured above – a painting-style work of art featuring a single tern mid-flight. These terns are deeply important to the novel, and are practically a character in and of themselves. They are fascinating, Arctic terns: they have the longest migration of all animals, flying 22,000 miles each year, for it is their nature.

‘The animals are dying and soon we will be alone here.’

Humans are destructive and selfish. This is a well-known but little-discussed fact that we have had yet to truly confront, perhaps at least in what is considered the Global North. We’re still a short way away from the world depicted in this novel, perhaps it’s distant enough so that we can remedy our wrongs. In the world of Migrations, all wild animals have had to pay the ultimate price for our mistreatment of the world and its resources: total extinction. Bears, owls, wolves, lions, almost all birds, and many more have ceased to exist or are rapidly dwindling. The devastating impact of climate change has irreversibly taken hold.

Leaving is what Franny Stone does best: she’s always coming and going. Particularly drawn to the sea, with its all-consuming and never-ending qualities, she is never still for too long, and rarely at all. It’s simply not in her nature, a truth that causes her great distress. Early on in the novel, Franny talks her way onto the Saghani (an Inuit word for Raven), a fishing vessel captained by American Ennis Malone and manned by his lively crew: Samuel, Basil, Anik, Malachi, Daeshim, and Léa. It’s nesting season in Tasiilaq, Greenland, and Franny is determined to follow what may be the final migration of the Arctic terns as they fly from the Arctic Circle all the way to the Antarctic Circle, at any cost. Soon, it becomes clear that the terns aren’t the only ones migrating, as Franny proves to be running from a murky and questionable past riddled with painful memories.

With masterful storytelling, McConaghy provides us with regular flashbacks in which Franny’s turbulent past unfolds in unspoken stages, much like those of the terns: first is nesting, then migration, and finally, mating. Critical to understanding Franny, as well as the decisions she makes, for she is nothing if not complicated, is knowledge of her husband Niall. Franny and Niall have what can only be described as a whirlwind romance, one that is soon battered by her inability to stay her put, and her defiant and destructive will. Just as important to Franny is her mother Iris, from whom she has undoubtedly inherited her desire to stay in constant motion, never staying too long and certainly never settling.

Niall and Iris are just two of the major puzzle pieces that make Franny the delicate and intricate woman she is by the point at which the novel begins. There is an indescribable amount of loss, departure, and trauma, compounded over decades, that has made her who she is and has pushed her to take on a journey as hazardous as that of the terns. McConaghy has written Franny with brilliance, in a way that makes it impossible (or at the very least difficult) not to care and root for her, no matter what secrets are unsurfaced. The unpredictability of Franny’s past, as it is slowly unravelled before us, is staggering but done as dignified as possible. I never really knew what was coming next as I turned each page, which is perhaps why I finished Migrations in just under two days, absorbing the beauty of McConaghy’s writing as much as possible. Much as it’s difficult not to care for Franny and her fate, it is also difficult not to be moved by both Franny’s story and the elegant way in which McConaghy has chosen to write it. The scenes depicted are painfully vivid: the Saghani battered by unruly seas, the familial bond of her crew, the loneliness of the animals dying out, Franny’s totally earth-shattering love for her husband. As I read, I could so easily imagine this story translated onto the screen, and as luck would have it, Migrations is currently being adapted for film.

I also appreciated how well-rounded and whole the characters around Franny are: Ennis has his own troubled past that wills him to do what he has set his mind to: catch whatever fish may be left out there. Samuel has a lovely hoard of children, all at home with his wife. Basil is a skilful chef, but absolute pain to be around. As much as Franny and the terns are the focus, there’s a complete world around her that is just as important.

Franny and the terns make their migrations separately, but also together, unified by distinct but indescribable desperations, both hopeful in their attempts to triumph circumstances over which they have had little control. Migrations is heart-wrenching and exquisite, and a novel I can’t recommend enough. It’s safe to say that Franny can be added to the ever-growing list of complicated female protagonists, following quickly after Cleo in Coco Mellors’ debut Cleopatra and Frankenstein, another five-star read. For a debut novel, Migrations is a breathtaking piece of work.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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