Charlotte McConaghy’s debut novel is unforgettable.
Set in the near future, it’s an ode to the natural world which has been devastated by climate change, where the impact of humanity on animals has led to the extinction of many species, and the seas have been depleted. Its opening sentence grips the reader: “The animals are dying. Soon we will be alone here.” The narrative moves between the west coast of Ireland to remote Greenland, through dangerous Atlantic swells to the bottom of the world.
The central character Franny Stone is determined to follow the last of the Arctic terns on what she believes is their final migration to Antarctica. She travels to Greenland, where she talks her way on to a fishing vessel by persuading its captain Ennis Malone to let her travel with him and his eccentric and vulnerable crew. Malone is desperate, he’s setting off on one last fishing expedition before fishing is banned. His boat is called the Saghani, an Inuit word for raven.
At first Franny has problems with captain and crew but gradually, as we learn about the individuals’ histories, a close bond builds up between them. Each of the characters is well developed and interesting. “Something was missing in their lives on land, and they went seeking the answer.”
As the narrative moves between the present and past, we gradually learn more about Franny; she’s haunted by an event in her childhood and a terrible crime. Her Irish mother gave birth to her in Australia, where she’d been abandoned. Shortly afterwards they moved back to Galway. Later Franny is sent to spend the rest of her childhood with her grandmother in Australia. There she discovers something of her father’s history, but her mother continues to elude her.
When as an adult she goes to find her mother’s family in the Burren and meets a much older cousin, she’s struck by how she doesn’t fit in. “I don’t tell her that I’m Irish, too. It feels fraudulent. As though she is the real Irish and I’m only a pretender…” While Franny loves her husband Niall with great passion, she is constantly driven to leave him. She is haunted by the mysteries about her parents, and by what she believes is an inherited wanderlust. Their impulsive marriage, while unusual, is utterly convincing. He’s a professor, an ornithologist, so they share a great interest in birds.
As the Saghani makes its way through the Atlantic, we soon realise Franny is chasing more than the terns. She’s vulnerable, troubled, yet determined and courageous. She’s passionate about the sea. She suffers from insomnia and when she sleeps has nightmares, sleepwalks dangerously, and she keeps writing letters which she doesn’t post. She’s intriguing and captivating. We want to know her secrets.
The Last Migration is original, tragic and haunting. It paints a picture of a future world ruined by self-destructive humanity, unless we urgently act to save our planet. However, while the novel is about loss, it is also about love and hope.
It is deeply moving, written is intensely atmospheric prose.
- The Last Migration
- Charlotte McConaghy
- Chatto & Windus €14.99