When I set out a few weeks ago out on my annual quest to read the Booker shortlist ahead of the announcement of the winner early next month, I decided I’d need a strategy. I have never actually managed to get through all six books in the six weeks or so between the shortlist being publicised and the award ceremony, but this year I am determined. Looking at the relative heft of each book, I decided that Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead would have to be ‘read’ as an audiobook. It is by some distance the longest on the shortlist – 608 pages, which amounts to 25 hours listening time. Between twice or thrice weekly runs, a bit of driving for work and a bit of solitary walking, I decided I could probably get through it in the month. My book club also decided to read it, though with some trepidation, as its longer than most books we select.
Well, here we are, just over halfway through the month and I have finished it – I COULD NOT STOP LISTENING! This is an extraordinary book, a huge achievement. Fascinating, clever, brilliantly conceived, exhaustively researched, intricately plotted and beautifully written. Whilst wishing to take nothing away from the author, I suspect there was a brilliant and meticulous editor involved with this book too.
The novel’s heroine is Marian Graves, an early 20th century aviator, a contemporary of Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. The novel begins with an account of the circumstances preceding her birth. She and her twin brother Jamie (who will later become an artist) are the only children of Addison Graves, a ship’s captain, and a 19-year-old socialite who falls pregnant on their first, casual, liaison. Their mother Annabel is emotionally disconnected from her babies, appearing to suffer from postnatal depression. When the ship that Addison Graves captains, the Josephina Eterna, sinks following an explosion in the hold, he chooses to rescue himself and the baby twins rather than remain on board until the last passenger leaves, as is his duty. His young wife is never found and when Addison is sent to prison he leaves the twins in the care of his brother Wallace, an artist and a drinker, who lives in Missoula, Montana.
The children have a wilderness childhood, thriving on neglect. They develop a close friendship with local mixed race boy Caleb, whose mother is also an alcoholic, and who spends most of his time at their home. When she is about fourteen, Marian watches an acrobatic air show held locally by two amateur pilots. She is mesmerised and decides thereafter that her only ambition is to become a pilot. Her life’s mission from then on is to accumulate enough money to take flying lessons. Marian has little formal education but she is an avid reader and works her way through the small library that her father left in the care of his brother. Having taught herself to drive and to mend cars she gets work as a delivery driver, distributing baked goods and, at the bottom of the baskets, bootleg liquor (this is the era of prohibition). She makes a delivery to the local brothel where she runs into local gangster Barclay McQueen. He is a big-time liquor distributor, importing from Canada and with an operation that spans the country. He is mesmerised by the young Marian and after slowly and gently building a relationship with her, he pays for flying lessons and will eventually buy her a plane. But he is no benevolent benefactor; he wants Marian and will eventually marry her. She finds herself drawn to him too, and there is a powerful chemistry between them, but it is also a dangerous and destructive passion.
As we move slowly through the events of Marian’s life we follow her flying career, which goes from strength to strength, despite the times, as her natural brilliance, her driving ambition and ingenuity, combine with the many and varied flying challenges she undertakes. The greater the risk, the more expertise she gains. She catches the attention of another high-profile lady pilot who sets up a special air service in England during the second world war, where women pilots are used as aircraft couriers, flying planes to different locations where they are needed.
A present-day story is being told in this book too. In Los Angeles in 2014-15, young actress Hadley Baxter finds her life is a mess. Made famous as a child actor in a highly successful television show, she finds further fortune with a franchise called Archangel (think Twilight), but then fame turns to infamy when having broken up with the co-star, with whom she had been in a long-term relationship, she is spotted in the arms of a bad-boy rockstar, and then in a clinch with a married producer. Hadley is offered the role of Marian Graves in an arthouse biopic which is focussing specifically on Marian’s attempt to circumnavigate the globe via the north and south poles – the great circle. It was during this attempt in 1950 that Marian and her co-pilot, Eddie Bloom, and their plane disappeared. A journal Marian kept was found by chance in Antarctica years later and published. A novel was also written by a woman distantly related to Marian by marriage. These two documents will form the basis of the new film.
There are parallels between Marian’s and Hadley’s stories; Hadley was also brought up by a neglectful and drunken uncle after her parents died when their light aircraft plunged into a lake, their bodies never found. At first the novel moves back and forth between the two. It’s mostly Marian’s story, but the Hadley episodes are laugh-out loud funny, utilising every possible Hollywood caricature and absurdity. In the last third of the novel they gradually begin to intersect, however, when at a film dinner party Hadley meets the artist Adelaide Scott, who is related to Marian. The producers suggest Hadley meets Adelaide, almost as a way of getting inside Marian, in preparation for the role, an idea which is mostly ridiculous since Adelaide met her only once when she was just five years old. By this time, Hadley has developed an interest in Marian which goes beyond the role and, through Adelaide, she gradually uncovers truths about Marian, about the expedition and about what eventually happened to her, which help her to reach a place of peace with the events of her own life.
There is much more to this novel than I have been able to convey in the above paragraphs which just goes some way to indicating how rich the story is. I have barely touched on Marian’s twin brother Jamie, whose story is also powerful, and Marian’s relationship with Caleb, the childhood friend who is also the love of her life. There are many ‘great circles’ in this novel, not just the circumnavigation of the globe. It is a book about the links between beginnings and endings, how we all end up back where we started somehow and about the connections between us and how these may cross, years, decades, even lifetimes.
For me this was ‘unputdownable’. An extraordinary book, it would be a worthy winner of the Booker Prize.