On Love, Loss, and Wildness: A Review of Charlotte McConaghy’s Migrations

by Katie Poore

“The animals are dying. Soon we will be alone here.”

So begins Charlotte McConaghy’s Migrations, one of the most haunting and beautiful novels I have read in years. I picked this book up on a whim, mostly because it has been categorized as “eco-fiction” by publishers and reviewers, a new sort of climate change novel. It’s a designation that I can’t resist, and so I drove to my local bookstore the day of its release to snatch a copy.

Locating the words for this book feels difficult; it is the most affecting story I have read this year, or perhaps ever, packing a great deal into its relatively slim 254 pages. It is McConaghy’s first foray into the world of adult fiction; based in Australia, she is the author of several young adult novels, and Migrations is the first of her works to be published in the U.S. And how lucky we are, I can’t help thinking, to receive a gift like this.

Migrations is certainly eco-fiction, but this categorization falls woefully short of accessing the heart of this beast. Migrations is really a multi-pronged love story: between man and woman, woman and sea, sea and sailor, woman and animal, human and earth. It is also, paradoxically, a story of profound loneliness.

“Soon we will be alone here,” Franny Stone, McConaghy’s tortured and mourning narrator, tells us, and this, I think, is what lies at the core of this tremendous book. Because, while it is certainly a meditation on the catastrophic environmental future that each day slinks a bit closer to our present moment, it is above all a story of humanity and soul and connection and life and solitude, a story that dwells in the exquisite space between anguish and wonder that is born of a deep and all-consuming love. It is a story of existential loneliness and profound unity, the relentless paradoxes that build and destroy life. It is a story of love, but not an easy love, and certainly not an answerable one. It is a story of nature and natures, of the astonishing world in which we find ourselves and the fundamental drives that push humans toward and away from love and intimacy, from stability and stasis, from wildness and movement and freedom and captivity. It is a story of tremendous proportions, whose sole teller is a broken and bruised Irish-Australian wanderer with an affinity for birds and a persistent death wish.

Franny is traumatized and wounded by what, until the very end, remains an unspeakable and fragmentary truth. She spends most of her time in the cold, willing herself into the fantastically enlivening frigidity of Arctic waters or cutting Greenland winds, hoping time and time again to sink into the numbness that follows. Her quest is an obsessive one—The New York Times likened Franny to a modern-day Ishmael, although I might suggest she shares more soul with Captain Ahab. She is following the Arctic terns in their migration; some of the last remaining bird species in Franny’s ecologically decimated world, they have “the longest migration of any animal,” flying from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back within the span of a year. The terns, Franny tells the similarly Ahab-esque Captain Ennis, will travel over their lifetimes a distance “the equivalent of flying to the moon and back three times.” She says: “I think of the courage of this and I could cry with it.”

So begins Franny’s odyssey to follow her brave little birds. It is their migration, but it is also hers, as indelibly a part of the terns’ nature as it is a part of Franny’s: she must move, wander, escape, both to appease the desolate wildness inside of her and to run from it. It’s a pathology she shares with all of the women in her family, whose penchants for disappearances of all kinds are both monstrous and inevitable to Franny. She is cursed to be like them because, “It isn’t fair to be the kind of creature who is able to love but unable to stay.”

The book dwells incessantly in paradoxes like this, painting for readers a life comprised of astounded, starry-eyed anguish. And this is what makes it so timely: there is so much pain here, and so much wonder, and so much loneliness and love. And there is, above all, relentless loss. It doesn’t feel that dissimilar to the present moment, and its world isn’t such a difficult one to imagine. This might be because its edges are hazy, its rules not entirely clear. The New York Times suggested this is one of the book’s weaknesses, that its environmental dystopia is not so clearly defined as it might have been. But I think it is, rather, a strength. Franny’s world isn’t one that builds itself on rules and laws and the minutiae of life—it is a visceral world, animal in its immediacy, the great melting glaciers and swooping birds and leaping fish and human touch the realest thing, the most urgent thing, the most beautiful and necessary. What matters here isn’t necessarily the structure of a world, but the space in which the structures crumble: the open and lawless sea, the fragmented ice, the animal lives comprised of instinct and necessity and, above all, courage.

I could continue on about Migrations for ages, singing its various praises and doing my best to excavate the innumerable things that lie at its heart. But I’d like to conclude here, with the notion that what is affecting about a novel like this is just as much writing and craft as it is timing. And I read this book at the right time; I imagine I am not the only one wondering lately what makes a world like ours worth it, what we can offer up as an antidote to the fear, destruction, vitriol, and hate that propagate further and further every day. I don’t think I am the only one who is unable to imagine a future, let alone a bright one. I don’t think I am the only one with difficulty conceptualizing a world in which we reverse and slow and stall enough to preserve our environment and ecologies before it is too late. And McConaghy doesn’t try to imagine this kind of future, either: she doesn’t deal in environmental optimism. Rather, she deals in the ways we might respond to environmental loss, and the beauty of wild things, and the tremendous, aching tragedy that it will be to lose the wildness of our world. What would a world look like without flight? McConaghy asks. Without diversity? Without growth? What will our world look like when it no longer looks like our world?

It will look barren, certainly. Empty skies, Franny tells us, are as eerie as anything. And absence is a wound that is perpetually torn open. But there remains a beauty in the savagery that is left, and it is a savagery that we must nonetheless protect. Because we are wild, too, at our core. Selfish and egotistical and insatiable, but also beautifully animal, beautifully instinctive, with a fierce capacity for love and a deep need for sublimity and a nature that steers us toward life and beauty and a delicate, enduring wonder. Franny’s world is a tragic one, rife with irreversible loss and the sort of gut-wrenching environmental deterioration that had me often on the verge of tears. But it is also a world where love and life struggle into being, seeking out the remaining corners of wilderness and living more deeply, more painfully and wonderfully and exquisitely because of it. The clues to life, Franny’s mother told her, are hidden everywhere. We just need to wander with our eyes open to find them. We just need to latch onto them and follow where they lead. And we need to honor them with everything in us, to protect with the ferocity and ardor that boils, always, just beneath our thin-skinned surfaces.