book review: Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy






MIGRATIONS by Charlotte McConaghy
★★★★☆
Flatiron, 2020




I didn’t expect to love this book nearly as much as I did. When I started reading, I was immediately turned off by the writing, which I thought was overwrought and stylized to a frankly annoying degree — but I pushed through and I actually found that the writing mellowed out after the first chapter; the prose does have a distinct lyrical flair throughout, but there was almost an air of desperation to the first chapter that the rest of the book was mercifully lacking. (It reminded me of this phenomenon that you sometimes see where it is very transparent that the author workshopped the hell out of chapter 1 to submit to agents, and then settled into a more organic style after that. I can’t say for sure that that’s what happened here, but that was the impression I got.)

Migrations is set in a version of the near-future where almost all animal life has died out, and it tells the story of Franny, a woman determined to follow a species of bird called the Arctic tern on their final migration from Greenland to Antarctica. Because she doesn’t have any funding for this expedition, the only way to make it is to join a fishing vessel and convince the captain to reroute the boat. Obviously she succeeds, or there wouldn’t be a book, but the novel is less about the journey itself and more about Franny’s past, and the trauma that led her to undertake such a dangerous expedition. 

Large swathes of this book are downright implausible, let’s just get that out of the way. If you have a particular interest in environmentalism specifically through a scientific lens, I cannot in good faith recommend this book. It takes liberties, it gets facts wrong, its worldbuilding is under-developed. Personally, nature writing is one of my very least favorite things and the less time spent on it the better, so this catered to my personal tastes quite nicely, but there’s every chance you’ll find this element silly and distracting. 

Regardless, I ended up loving this. Migrations has been compared a lot to Station Eleven and I found that actually rang true for me — there’s something in the character work that felt really similar and familiar. McConaghy’s characters, like Mandel’s, are brilliantly drawn — even the most minor characters feel like they have an entire story hidden in them. 

It’s honestly challenging to describe this book’s strengths when its weaknesses are so evident and tangible; the strengths are a lot more slippery and understated. I think where this worked for me is in its depiction of a very flawed person searching for atonement in all the wrong places. It’s a deeply human, deeply sad work, and it ended up being one of the most emotionally affecting books I’ve read in a long time. Definitely recommended more from a character-driven angle than a dystopian one.

Thank you to Flatiron for the free copy.

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