Review: A powerful climate novel reminds us that people are animals too
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In September 1846, 29-year-old Henry David Thoreau took a train to Bangor, Maine, and then set out by canoe and foot to climb Mt. Katahdin and bask in what he expected to be “a wholly uninhabited wilderness.” Instead, alongside the splendor of old-growth hemlocks and wriggling white trout, he found clear-cut forests “all black as charcoal” and air so smoky it obscured the views. Less than a hundred years after our nation’s founding, humanity’s consumptive greed had already reduced the great open north to “so plain a trail of the white man.”
In “Migrations,” the American debut of Australian speculative-fiction writer Charlotte McConaghy, those flashing trout are gone, along with all monkeys, “any animal that once lived in rain forests,” bears, big cats, reptiles, and the wolves whose howls startled Thoreau in Maine. Experts are predicting the forests will be gone in a few years; governments remind citizens to put their names on wait lists for a chance at one last glimpse. And most importantly for Franny Stone, waves crash over fishless seas and Arctic terns, deprived of the aquatic plenitude that fuels their 25,000-mile annual journeys, are on what may be their last migration.
So yes, this is a climate novel, a species of fiction that is too-little-loved (perhaps because it’s too frequently patronizing) but by no means endangered in 2020 (cf. Lydia Millet’s “The Children’s Bible,” Jenny Offill’s “Weather”). And yet this is a unique specimen: If worry is the staple emotion that most climate fiction evokes in its readers, “Migrations” — the novelistic equivalent of an energizing cold plunge — flutters off into more expansive territory.
The author has been everywhere, in life and fiction. “A Children’s Bible” passionately fuses the two: “You’ve gotta be Chicken Little sooner or later.”
Franny, an emotionally bedraggled ornithologist, begins her own migration on the coast of Greenland, where she’s looking for a fishing vessel that will allow her to follow the terns. The deal she offers is that the birds, prodigious hunters and marathon athletes, will lead the fishers directly to the long-sought but probably mythical “Golden Catch.” She’ll track the birds with software to determine if they can reach Antarctica and conquer the barren ocean, and in turn the crew will mine it for its last slippery reserves. As a compromise, it’s not ideal, but in Ennis Malone, the taciturn captain of the Saghani, she finds an agreeable partner. What he doesn’t know is that once they reach the icy strait, she plans to die.
McConaghy has a gift for sketching out enveloping, memorable characters using only the smallest of strokes, which makes Franny’s time with the crew of the Saghani the novel’s strongest and most vibrant thread. Along with Basil (the tempestuous cook who froths up foamy Noma-like meals), Lea (a Black French mechanic who holds the ship together), Samuel (the kindly father figure who inducts Franny into the crew) and a smattering of other seamen, the Saghani moves into what I have to call uncharted waters, because they are. From Greenland on south through the Atlantic they face storms, run-ins with the law, degrading morale and potential mutiny.
References to “Moby Dick” offer up “Migrations” as a kind of bookend to that early American industrial-era parable. What better way to demonstrate the logical endpoint of mankind’s rapaciousness than to cast out little reminders of Ahab’s crew spearing and stripping scores of whales for profit and pleasure? Just call Franny “Ishmael.” “Moby Dick’s” Pequod was named for a tribe of Native Americans who were decimated by Europeans. Saghani, Franny points out, is an Inuit word for “raven”; a conspiracy of them used to trail her as a child, eating crumbs from her hands, but she learns midway on this journey that they’ve gone extinct. And while in Melville’s epic the backbreaking work of whaling yields substantial gains, here the nets come up empty.
While Franny takes to the seas, the narrative needles through her past, which is overladen with abandonment, disappointment and death. Too much of it. McConaghy can’t stop heaping on steaming piles of sadness, as if without an overstuffed grab-bag of tragedy a character has no basis for her pain. To that end, Franny hints at a rift with her accomplished ecologist husband Niall, the emotional trauma of her mother’s abandonment, the malignant neglect of the grandmother who took her in, a stint in prison and a string of bad decisions that have left her alone in the world. This is a novel that doles out heartbreaking events as twists (like the will-she-won’t-she of her planned suicide), but “Migrations” doesn’t need them; it has so much else to offer.
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Traditional climate fiction either pits its protagonist against a ticking clock (Barbara Kingsolver’s “Flight Behavior”) or launches her into an irreversibly contaminated world (Claire Vaye Watkins’ “Gold Fame Citrus”). It speculates about how humans will either straighten out the mess they’ve made (Ian McEwan’s “Solar”) or adapt to a new normal (Louise Erdrich’s “Future Home of the Living God”). In most cases, people and Mother Earth are at odds, clenched together in a fight to the death.
“Migrations” insists that humans are animals and elevates animals to their equals — and necessary counterparts. When we meet Franny, she’s been out on the tundra alone for six days. “My tent was blown into the sea last night,” she recounts; she was living like one of the Arctic terns in order to get close to them. When Niall takes a job at a Scottish wildlife sanctuary, a sort of Noah’s Ark for disappearing wildlife, she joins him, hovering at the edges of his meetings and feeling useless without even a high school diploma. The animals’ enclosure calls to her more than the conferences.
“I wish I could walk through this chain-link fence,” she thinks, and instead slides into the frigid sea. One night a bout of sleepwalking takes her over that fence. She sees her own footprints after she awakes and thinks, “They don’t belong to me, but to the woman who lives inside, the one who wants the wild so much that come nightfall she steals her way into my skin.” In a flashback, the news reports that a lone wolf has trotted out of the forest years after her kind were believed gone. It is a more mournful site than any lonely human. “She is thin and scrawny and magnificent,” Franny thinks.
The specter of the wilderness haunts this novel. When Franny visits Yellowstone she hears no birdsong. “I regret coming here,” she thinks, “to where it should be more alive than anywhere.” A world without wilderness isn’t only a practical problem to be fixed, it’s a crisis of the human condition. McConaghy has an eye for the webs of connectivity that humans have ditched in favor of their own supposed development, and “Migrations,” rather than struggle to convince readers of some plan of environmental action, instead puts humans in their place. If we want to make it, she hints, we won’t be able to do it without birdsong. As Thoreau put it, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Kelly’s work has been published in New York Magazine, Vogue, the New York Times Book Review and elsewhere.
Flatiron: 272 pages, $27
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