Franny, the main character of Charlotte McConaghy’s “Migrations,” is often compared to that mythical Irish creature, the selkie, part human, part seal. Selkies are drawn to sea—she says her heart leads “not to true north but to true sea.” Franny more than once leaps without hesitation into icy water. She’s a wanderer, and warns her husband she needs to roam. She laments, “It isn’t fair to be the kind of creature who is able to love but unable to stay.” Theirs is a love story, almost perfect. The respected ecological scholar falls deeply in love with the bird-loving janitor at the university. He recognizes her need and trusts and encourages her to fulfill it. “Migrations” carries the reader around the world, a welcome travel excursion on the page for sheltering at home. The half-Irish, half-Australian Franny travels from Greenland to the Antarctic, following a small bird. “The Arctic tern has the longest migration of any animal. It flies from the Arctic all the way to the Antarctic, and then back again within a year. This is an extraordinarily long flight for a bird its size. And because the terns live to be thirty or so, the distance they will travel over the course of their lives is the equivalent of flying to the moon and back three times.”
In McConaghy’s novel, a bitter twist in ecology has occurred. These are the last terns in existence, on perhaps their last migration—most species of animal, except a few that humans eat, have gone extinct. Hitching a ride with a salmon boat, Franny promises that the terns will lead the fishermen to the few remaining fish, a heartbreaking deal for the animal lover. The fishermen are conflicted about this likely final trip, too, bearing the responsibility for putting themselves out of business with one large haul.
McConaghy’s descriptions of life on the boat are a book-lover’s dream—a rarified experience actualized on the page. The tiny quarters, the narrow hallways, the superstitions of the crew, obedience to the captain, the danger of the sea—all feel vividly and claustrophobically real. On the ship, Franny is unwelcome, despite having directions to the fish. They put her to work tying knots. Franny’s drive to follow these birds fits easily with her desire to be on the move, but her determination is more and more frantic. As an amateur ornithologist with more than a casual interest in birds, Franny is on a search for redemption from an unknown crime. As the author progressively reveals what moves Franny to relentlessly travel and what drives her obsession with the tern’s migration, her endless wanderings belie her desire for a sense of home and belonging.
Climate novels can be preachy—they have every right—but “Migrations” is hopeful. Like Lydia Millet’s “A Children’s Bible” or Jenny Offill’s “Weather,” our damaged planet fights for survival, providing, at least, the suggestion that Mother Earth will not lie down quietly. Despite being nearly empty of fish, the sea in McConaghy’s novel is fiercely alive, maintaining a healthy fear in the heart of a seasoned boat captain, and a continuing draw for Franny.
By Charlotte McConaghy
Flat Iron Books, 272 pages