Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy
I cannot remember how I discovered the book; I have a tendency to trawl through the internet, looking for new reads, never mind that I have a TBR pile that keeps growing, and a Kindle library that is littered with unread novels. The cover of the novel, as well as the title, intrigued me. Birds taking flight, against an icy background, mint-green and icy blue cool.
I read the blurb; it did not tell me much, but I was intrigued and found a nearby bookseller who could deliver the hardcover to me as soon it was available. It arrived innocuously one rainy afternoon. I kept it aside, knowing that I wanted it for a weekend where I had time. I still had no idea what this book was about (I had not done the usual sleuthing I would do about books I wanted to buy online) but I knew I needed to be patient with this one, that I needed time to savour it.
When you have been a reader all your life, you develop a soft intuition for books. Some will call out to you loudly, others will whisper your name, and to both, you will respond. You will know that what awaits you between those crisp pages will have the potential to shift your life just a little bit, sometimes, completely.
So I set the Migrations aside, and waited.
I extracted a wisdom tooth recently. As far as experiences go, it was notable for how forceful it was – teeth are strong little creatures, deeply rooted, surrounded by vulnerable (but still hardy) gum. There was a lot of wrenching, and some cutting of flesh, blood.
I cried – more from the perceived fear of violence (that as a womxn I understood at a guttural level) than from the pain of the procedure itself. Even though my gum and mouth were mostly numb and limp flesh, even though I could not actually physically feel that much, I was terrified.
I have forgotten how intimately I understand violence, not because of any individual experience in my life, but because the awareness of it has been fed to me since birth. Being a womxn means to know, be prepared for, to tolerate, a degree of violence at every stage in your life.
Pain. Us womxn, we understand it very well.
At the heart of it, Migrations is a simple novel. It is a novel about a woman who is trying to come to terms with her traumatic past and her inevitable need to wander.
But like all good stories, it has layers and so, it is also about many things – the deep and abiding love that an unloved experiences, abandonment and the returning, death and life.
The story begins with Franny Stone (then Lynch) chasing the last remaining Arctic terns on what might be their final migration, from their nesting grounds in Greenland to Antarctica. The Arctic terns are special because their journey is the longest migration undertaken by any animal – it is a full crossing of the globe, and a journey that the terns embark on twice a year. Franny is determined – she needs to find the birds, and then she wants to die. But to get to that eventual destination, Franny faces physical and mental adversities that may cost her her life, which she is determined to overcome.
The irony of it – to die, she must first live.
And of course, underpinning all of this, is Franny’s recollection of her relationship with her husband Niall, the one great love-thing that tethers her, pushes her, embraces her, even though we eventually realise that Niall has left her, despite all his promises that he would never do such a thing.
“Things don’t always take the shape you want them to, kid, and we gotta learn to endure that with a bit of grace.”
When I finished Migrations, I cried. Not the quiet leaky tears that usually come with the ending of a good book, but the deep sobbing that happens when something inside you has given way and created space for something bigger.
I was not sure if I was weeping for Franny or for myself.
In a way, I understood Franny’s unrest. As a womxn, it would be impossible not to.
The need to move, to be wild and free, to choose the dangers we want to suffer (because there will be dangers and there will be suffering, regardless), to constantly seek.
So much of my life has been about movement. Even now, I am my most peaceful in transit – in the airport terminals awaiting my next flight, in long bus rides, while walking along a slight path on a long, unending trek.
It baffles me that we are fed the discourse of settling since we are born, us womxn. We are told that we need to make a home, a hearth. It is our destination even before we have decided to leave. The responsibility of staying falls on our shoulders. The responsibility of leaving is conveniently given to the masculine. But…why?
How do we break free from this language? How do we set ourselves free? Shouldn’t equality – shouldn’t the right to flight – be for all?
‘“He isn’t John Torpey, frightened of having a wife who was wilder than he was, punishing her for it and living a life of regret. No, Niall was a different kind of man. He reaches to kiss my hand, to press it to his face as though gripping at life itself, or something more ardent, and he says, my husband, changing my life, “There’s a difference between wandering and leaving. In truth, you’ve never once left me.”’
In Migrations, what frees Franny is also what tethers her deeply – her love for another person, this living, breathing force – which gives her the space to be, while holding her accountable to another and ultimately, herself.
What a dangerous thing. But oh, also, what a precious thing.
‘“But I need take nothing from you, Niall, my love. I’d rather give you something. The nature of me. The wilderness inside. They are yours.”’
I got married recently. I said vows and declared that I will be with my husband in sickness and in health, through the good and the bad (and other poetic things that made up my vows). I tethered myself to him in a way that I never dreamt I could tether myself to anyone.
People have asked me how I feel after marriage. My answer is wry and sardonic, consistent with my personality. Not much has changed, I say; now I wear rings, and I have another set of family.
But in a conversation with a friend, the truth slipped out. I say, honestly, I’m relieved. I have made the biggest decision of my life. Everything other decision, from here on, is easier, almost peripheral.
Hearing my own words startled me, because it is true. Making this choice, getting to this point, was a journey. One that had its own challenges, one that was rife with movement and angst and jubilation, and which has now reached a sweet spot, an equilibrium. This is the danger that I have chosen for myself, this is my freedom, and as more than anything else, it is a relief to be here at last.
There is something about love that has taken me time to understand. The first, that it is a choice. Marriage is a choice, as is to fall in love, to trust another, to have expectations of another. Choices that build up one at a time, until you find your life entwined with someone else’s, until you realise that you couldn’t remember a time not being a part of them, them not being a part of you.
The second – that love is a universe, in that it is freeing, but it holds you accountable. Like life, which is also freeing, but which forces you to take stock of your actions, which habituates you, wherein you have to turn up and live. Too often, love, with all of its literary dramatisations, is made to feel like the end, the destination. But really, it is the beginning. Sometimes, even the middle. But never, the end.
I cried after reading the book, because perhaps, the truth that I understood when my own words looked back at me – is that my love and my marriage have not caged me. Instead, it feels like a good resting place. A perch for me to rest before I take flight again, a home that I can return to, again and again, a nest that I can continue to build.
Because I too, like Franny, am a wanderer and seeker. And I too, like Franny, afraid of tethering, of the violences that I inherently understand, am emboldened by love, to continue flying and discovering, knowing that there is a home to return to.
‘“We don’t move, but outside the world is still shifting and breathing and living. The moon lopes her path over our heads. I live in his words, and in the vastness of his contradictions.
“But you’re holding me so tenderly”, I say.
“Does it feel like a cage?”
My eyes prickle. “No,” I say, and I feel that deep and terrible binding for what it is, I know its face and its name, and it’s not a binding at all, but love, and maybe that’s the same kind of thing after all.
“Will you go somewhere with me?” I ask him.
Niall’s arms tighten. He says, “Aye. Anywhere.”’