Book review: Ambitious heroines take flight in a magnificent Great Circle

available here

Great Circle, American author Maggie Shipstead’s third novel, was longlisted for the Booker Prize earlier this week.

Great Circle

By Maggie Shipstead
Fiction/Doubleday/Paperback/591 pages/$29.96/Available here
4 out of 5

“I was born to be a wanderer,” writes the aviatrix Marian Graves in her logbook. “I was shaped to the earth like a seabird to a wave. Some birds fly until they die.”

Great Circle, American author Shipstead’s third novel, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize earlier this week, takes flight as its theme and, accordingly, soars.

In 1914, Marian and her twin brother Jamie are rescued as infants from a catastrophic shipwreck that their father, the captain, will go to prison for.

They are raised in mountainous Missoula, Montana, by their uncle, a painter. Jamie grows up sensitive and artistically inclined while Marian yearns for flight.

Her dream is realised at a cost when she draws the attention of ruthless gangster Barclay Macqueen, who pays for her flight lessons in order to lay claim to her.

Marian’s story is half of the circle. The other half, set in 2014 Hollywood, is that of Hadley Baxter, a former child star now mired in scandal, having been snapped cheating on her co-star from Archangel, a Twilight-esque blockbuster franchise.

Her career in free fall, Hadley is tapped to play Marian in a biopic about the aviatrix’s attempt to circumnavigate the globe in 1950, only to vanish in Antarctica.

Hadley is drawn to Marian’s story, having also lost her parents at a young age – in her case, in a plane crash – and been raised by a dissolute uncle.

Both strive to navigate the expectations placed upon women by society, while seeking a freedom they do not yet know how to comprehend.

Dual narratives like this often sink because one strand – usually the more modern one – fails to provide adequate ballast for the other.

Great Circle is a rare instance of near-perfect balance. Marian’s story is so fascinating it could easily have overwhelmed the novel, but Shipstead modulates it adroitly. Hadley, self-absorbed and self-destructive, could have been annoying, but is given sass and a surprising depth.

Shipstead’s writing has an expansive beauty, especially in the delight of flight, the marvel of the earth from the air. Rock layers in mountains are “wrapped like taffy on the mixing hook”. Marian learns a Russian word, polynya, for “the patches of open water in the sea ice where whales come to breathe”.

This is matched by a sweeping volume of research, glimpsed in detours into the science of navigation; the story of a gender-fluid indigenous warrior dubbed Sitting-in-the-Water-Grizzly; and the real-life women pilots whose stories speckle the landscape of Marian’s.

There is Amy Johnson, the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia; Elinor Smith, who flew under four New York City bridges on a dare; and Jacqueline Cochran, the speed queen who broke the sound barrier.

Amelia Earhart, the most famous aviatrix of all time, is a background presence, viewed with a tinge of resentment for being the only one posterity had room for.

Like its heroines, Great Circle’s ambitions have enormous scope. It wants to highlight the forgotten women of flight history. It seeks to test how infinite space might be compacted into art, the complexities of a life compressed into a legacy.

Marian observes that her intentions are unachievable, but these may be the worthiest kind. She declares: “I wish to measure my life against the dimensions of the planet.”

It is against the odds that this novel should get off the ground. And yet, lift.

If you like this, read: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (Little, Brown, 2017, $18.95, available here), another historical novel with a formidable heroine that does with water what Great Circle does with air. When she is a child, Anna Kerrigan’s father disappears at the hands of gangsters. During World War II, she becomes the Brooklyn Naval Yard’s first female diver.

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