“It’s a great read” – Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead #bookerprize #bookerprizeshortlist

IMG_9Aug2021at071624Marian Graves is a pioneering female pilot whose plane went down somewhere between Antarctica and New Zealand as she attempted to circumnavigate the globe pole to pole in early 1950. Hadley Baxter is a Hollywood actress, a one-time tweenie superstar, veteran of a Twilight-esque movie franchise and currently a paparazzi magnet about to play Marian in a film adaptation of a novelisation of Marian’s own fragmented account of her final flight. Shipstead’s novel interweaves these stories, as well as a handful of other associated snippets, in a six-hundred-page sweep through the history of early twentieth century flight and early twenty-first century celebrity culture.

That’s the broad-strokes version, anyway. To recount the plot in detail would be to do a disservice to the narrative pull of this captivating read: suffice it to note that Marian’s story – and that of her twin brother, Jamie, an artist and conflicted pacifist – encompasses everything from the oppressive gendering of exploration and ambition, to the ethics of war and art, and carries us from the Glasgow shipyards of 1909 to the Montana airfields of the Prohibition Era; and from the Ross Ice Shelf of 1950, to the Hollywood sound stages of 2015. And as expansive as it is it terms of time and space, it’s equally broad in theme and topic: we get everything from the mechanics of early aircraft and the logistics of riding the railways as a stowaway, to the realities of queer experience amongst the Allied troops and the history of American women pilots taxiing Spitfires to UK combat pilots in the 1940s. There’s domestic coercion and violence, cross-dressing and smuggling, the policing of sexuality, the traversing of near-incomprehensible landscapes, and the navigation of sexual mores across numerous generations and continents. It’s an epic story, spanning a half-century (plus some) of immense socio-political and technological change, a fascinating account parcelled in a series of love-stories, not least that of Marian (and, perhaps, Shipstead’s) with flying itself, the unreality of its geometries and sensations, the scale of the landscape below, the ghost of death trailing every flight.

he sheer scope of the book, then – the extent of Shipstead’s ambition mirroring her characters’ – is hypnotising. It’s long, yes, but it’s so various in its plotting that the length passes almost unnoticed once you get going, and the juxtaposition of Hadley’s bullshit-free voice beside Marian’s (and, intermittently, Jamie’s, and more) leavens the intensity of the historical narrative. But it’s not simply well plotted and structured: it’s beautifully written, a lyrical triumph that captures the yearning misery of unattainable love as well as it does the horror of piloting a biplane as it funnels through a graveyard spiral, or, indeed, the terrifying expanse of the Antarctic icefloes and the Alaskan glaciers. Shipstead juggles a lot and does it with aplomb; as well as story and place, she offers an acute look at the psychological ramifications of loss, grief, and hopelessness. Like all good historical fiction – though this, of course, isn’t entirely historical – Great Circle offers us perspective on our own times. If, overtly, the clear parallel is Hadley vs Marian, the more striking comparison is more radically existential: the world that Marian explores is, today, rapidly diminishing. The landscapes she passes over have been razed, deforested, built-upon, fracked and extracted; the glaciers are melting, the ice-caps are shrinking, the animals she encounters are going rapidly extinct. Books like this – like Richard Power’s The Overstory – remind us of the damage we’re doing and the urgency of the need to stop, to fight for the preservation of what’s left. This is a feminist text, but it’s also tapping into ecopoetics; its’ asking us to pay attention.

Any Cop?: Yes, it’s a great read. Will it win the 2021 Man Booker? It’s certainly a very likely candidate. It’s elegant, intricate and intelligent, and it’s tapping into many key concerns of recent fiction and criticism (gender politics and ecocriticism) as well as ticking off several commercially-popular boxes: historical fiction that introduces us in gorgeously complex detail to underexplored areas of general knowledge. It’s also not in any way experimental, and this accessibility, combined with all the above, screams BOOKER in a way that, say, the works of David Keenan (probably, and unfortunately) do not. Time will tell, naturally, but I’m calling this as a significant contender.

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