Book review: The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

Is there hope at the slow end of a dying world?

You could be forgiven for thinking not in Charlotte McConaghy’s The Last Migration where the climate changed-induced creeping apocalypse at its heart has ushered in the demise of moose and elephants, wolves and bees and the big cats, and most poignantly for protagonist Franny Stone, the wondrous birds of the world.

But hope there is, in flawed abundance, something that may surprise you but which adds immeasurable depth and beguiling nuance to this gloriously intense and searingly beautiful novel.

A wandering soul with a dark past and an anxious, sleep-disrupting present (and possibly destructive, if magical, love of the sea), Franny is married to the endlessly understanding and loving, if lonely Niall, who shares her love of avian life and has dedicated himself, academic pursuits and otherwise, to their Pyrrhic preservation.

But Franny is rarely home anymore, leaving for places far afield, like her mother and grandmother before, possessed of a desperately impelling wanderlust that she can quite for some time but never truly be rid of or free from.

Niall understands, knowing that even though Franny wanders she never really leaves him, with her heart devoted to him wholly, and to her commitment-aversion surprise, without regret, a love than endures even when they are far part which to his great regret and her occasional melancholic ruminations, is too often.

There is no doubt that Franny has been, and is, driven but what, asks The Last Migration, in tones both emotionally intimate and hauntingly expansive, is she running to and from?

“Once, when the animals were going, really and truly and not just in warnings of dark futures now, right now, in mass extinctions we could see and feel, I decided to follow a bird over an ocean. Maybe I was hoping it would lead me to where they’d all fled, all those of its kind, all the creatures we thought we’d killed. Maybe I thought I’d discover whatever cruel thing drove me to leave people and place and everything, always. Or maybe I was just hoping the bird’s final migration would show me a place to belong.

Once, it was birds who gave birth to a fiercer me.” (P. 3)

That pressing, urgent questions sits at the very centre of this gritty but grittily honest gem of a novel which is as passionate about what means to save a person as it is to save the endangered world in which they are connected.

Franny knows this better than most, pushed ever onward by a need to follow the last Arctic Terns from Greenland, under assault from the warming ravages of climate change down to Antarctica, itself am increasingly wan shadow of its former ice-encrusted self.

She talks her way onto one of the last fishing boats going south, captained by the taciturn but heartfelt Ennis and crewed by a disparate group of individuals who soon become a family to the emotionally adrift Franny, in the hope that her mission to follow the Arctic Terns south will be realised.

The fishing boats themselves are very much on the endangered list as oceanic extinctions race catastrophically in time with land-based ones, the world’s seas and oceans emptying ever more quickly of fish and whales and the myriad forms of life that are mysterious and magical in the most affecting and necessary of ways.

There is a gathering groundswell of public and governmental support to ban commercial fishing worldwide, a rare sign of global unity on a pressing issue, but a development which will ensure that the only life that Ennis and his sea-loving crew know will soon come to an end.

Charlotte McConaghy (image via Penguin Australia (c) Emma Daniels)

But not just yet, or at least that’s what Franny hopes as she rushes to not just follow the Terns on what may yet be their likely last ever migration, but to quieten the inner demons and lost love that are consuming in a way that feels as final as the loss of the birds and the fishing fleets.

The Last Migration is such a profoundly moving and vividly affecting read, awash with aching and longing so sharply powerful that you feel your heart being cut with each and every beautifully-placed word.

But it is also astonishingly hopeful even as it charts the decline of the natural world and the people connected to it, whether they understand that or not, offering up the enticing possibility that there is such a thing as a happy ending even in a world that seems to be very much short on them in any form.

Franny is a troubled woman, every bit as troubled as the broken planet she in on, but she is also capable of real and enduring connection, and even though she is battling abandonment by her mother, a sudden marriage that upends her world for the best (and the worst sometimes) and a crime for which she feels utter damning responsibility, she is also hungry to find some sense of belonging.

She finds it in Ennis, Anik, Malachi & Daeshim, Léa, Samuel and Basil, to varying degrees, a sense that while life appears to be done with her that there is perhaps, as her mother promised, the possibility of life everywhere, and often where she least expects it.

A gust of air beneath my unfurling wings and I am up, weightless, soaring. I could never love anyone more. And in the same moment comes a terrible awareness. He’s opened the cage door I closed on myself and now I’ll fly, I’ll have to. I see it all laid out before us, how I will wander away again and again, and I won’t want to have more children because of it, and no matter what he says, no matter how generous he is, it will ruin us both a little more each time.” (P.235)

That what makes The Last Migration so immersively, hauntingly, brilliant to read.

It is raw and real and honest about the human condition, about the inherent contradictions we all carry and how we are all trying to make sense of life and its competing demands even as we are repeatedly forced to respond to it based on the flawed brokenness we all hold inside to one degree or another.

Set that against the steady and sad decline of a world in peril and you have a dramatically moving story with a lot at stake, not least the mission that drives Franny onward, ever onward, in the service of love, of final promises and of a sense that life cannot be served but maybe something can be done before it ceases altogether.

But this transcendentally grounded and overwhelmingly beguiling book is also ripe with possibility and hope, not the kind that shouts its heady optimism from the rooftops or finds its home in Disney or Hallmark movies tied up in sunshine and pretty bows of pink, but that which creeps up on you, slowly displacing the disillusionment, pain and loss until one day you wake up and discover there may be more on offer than you previously dared hope.

Quite how that all plays out in The Last Migration is something best left to the read, and trust me this book will consume and swallow you up in the best way, possessed of a story and a protagonist that will win over you heart in so many small but meaningful ways, but hope is there amongst all the regret and driven desperation and it fills this gloriously good with all the humanity you will ever need along with a deep and abiding love for the natural world that we must work hard to save lest we lose ourselves when it passes from this earth.

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