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Posts Tagged ‘Australian writers’

Migrations, by Charlotte McConaghy, was a gift from my friend Joan, who was one of my sponsors during my discernment in the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross. We certainly had as many conversations about fiction as we did about faith (although I think we’d both say those topics often intersect) and she has pointed me towards some wonderful reads over the last year. Migrations is both a fascinating story that keeps readers engaged with piecing together the main character’s story and an examination of the fragility of life for all earth’s inhabitants.

When the book opens, Franny Stone is in Greenland, pleased to have banded three arctic terns in terrible weather, and anxious to find a ship captain she can convince to follow the birds on their epic migration. Fisheries are terribly depleted, so much so that her pitch is that the terns will lead them to a catch. She thinks she’s found a likely ship to take her on when she rescues Ennis, captain of the Saghani. Until he says she didn’t rescue him. An intriguing start to the story, and I read on, assuming that Franny is a scientist and that the story would revolve around some kind of plan to save the birds. It’s doesn’t.

Turns out much of the book is about how nothing is as seems, particularly when it comes to Franny. Migrations is set in a time in the not very distant future when human selfishness has caused extinction of nearly all wildlife, a book that spotlights humans as a “plague on the world” as Franny’s husband Niall says. But McConaghy doesn’t tell the story of environmental degradation — she plunks us down in the midst of it to see how people are living with it.

And Migrations is about the big ideas that should have prevented mass selfishness and mass extinction: love, faithfulness, truth, hope, family. It’s a page turner, as Niall helps Franny delve into the mystery of her family, as we learn of a crime, as we see how far Franny and Ennis will go to finish her quest, and what she’s really set out to do. And it’s a story of someone who seems flighty and unreliable — fickle, as her mother-in-law implies — but is really traumatized. Like some of the creatures she loves, Franny is among the last of her family, and for much of the book, people around her mistake her restlessness with what seems to me an almost primal need to find a way to escape what’s harmed her, and somehow survive it.

Migrations would be a good vacation read — short, intriguing, and offering plenty to discuss with others. And I don’t know for sure what the connection is, but it sounds like the setting of McConaghy’s next novel, Once There Were Wolves is set in a place where Franny and Niall spend time in Migrations? Or a place very like it — a research and conservation station in the Scottish Highlands. I hope it will be as full of details about creatures and places as Migrations is. Part of what brought the book alive are things like a vivid description of a small ship steering up and over waves in a rough sea.

Because I don’t want to give away any more about the plot, I will leave you instead with a bit of McConaghy’s lovely writing:

“Most mornings I wake to a kiss as he leaves for work. This morning it was so early there was barely any dawn light peeking through the shutters and in the dark his lips could have been a dream.”

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First a quick shout out for the most recent Maisie Dobbs mystery, The Consequences of Fear, by Jacqueline Winspear. I usually don’t review a series book (especially not book 16), and I just wrote about Winspear’s memoir, but I wanted to mention that this series continues to be very entertaining and intriguing.

As was The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I was thinking today that it’s a perfect example of fiction that deals with tragic events but manages to leave the reader hopeful. Actually, it left me deeply curious. I wished mightily that the main character, Esme Nicoll, was one of the real people Williams wove into her story. Unfortunately she’s entirely fictional but it’s a testament to debut novelist (and already accomplished scholar and writer) Williams that I believed she could be real, right up until I read the author’s note.

Williams was inspired by real stories about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and several of the characters Esme grows up knowing, and later working with, are actual people. I read a book about the making of the dictionary many years ago (by Simon Winchester, and so had Williams, and she noticed the lack of women. But she knew women were involved, notably editor James Murray’s daughters, and some of the volunteer contributors who sent in words or definitions. The OUP blog notes that Murray also hired a woman academic, which was uncommon at the time.

Esme is the daughter of one of Murray’s assistants, and as a small child she sits under the sorting table where the slips with words on them are organized. She develops a habit of taking slips from the floor. As she grows up she begins gathering words of her own, because she realizes that many of the words her friend, the Murray’s maid Lizzie, uses are never going to be in the dictionary because there aren’t published quotes to support them. She tells Lizzie that women sometimes use words differently, and those meanings are not reflected in the dictionary. Esme gathers those, too, writing up and stashing slips in a trunk under Lizzie’s bed.

Esme is a wonderful character, whose human imperfections make her very believable. Williams weaves in the story of Edith Thompson, real life OED contributor, sub-editor, and proofreader, by making her Esme’s aunt, a fascinating woman who has a big influence on Esme’s life. And she works in some astute observations about gender roles and class differences, as well as two key historical events that impact Esme and the other characters, and the making of the dictionary: the women’s suffrage movement and WWI. Williams includes lovely details about the workings of the Oxford University Press where the dictionary was printed, as well as other locations around Oxford, and the famous Scriptorium — a glorified shed — in the Murray’s garden where much of the work proceeded until Murray’s death.

But mainly she makes it entirely believable that a woman working on the dictionary might start a side project to recognize all the left out words. Gareth, a compositor at the press, finds Esme picking up slips of some of her collected words off the floor of the Scriptorium after a male assistant has dismissed her work as unimportant. Gareth asks her why words that are in common use aren’t in the dictionary. She explains where she gets her words. From “The poor. People who work at the Covered Market. Women. Which is why they’re not written down and why they’ve been excluded. Though sometimes they have been written down, but they’re still left out because they are not used in polite society. . . . They’re important.”

A delightful read. Entertaining, interesting, and full of heart and truth.

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