As a prologue to this Booker short-listed novel, Maggie Shipstead quotes from Rilke’s The Book of Hours:
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it….
Inspiration for the fictitious Marian Graves, obsessed with flying ever since she was a young girl, came when Maggie Shipstead saw the statue of 1930s aviator (then called an aviatrix) Jean Batten at Auckland airport. Batten flew solo from London to New Zealand in the 1930s.
As I read Great Circle, I had to keep reminding myself that it is a novel — Marian Graves is so determined, her eccentricity is believable.
Early in the novel we learn that in 2014 a film is being made of Marian’s story. The world knows that Marian and her navigator Eddie disappeared somewhere over the Ross ice shelf, heading towards New Zealand to complete Marian’s dream to fly around the world longitudinally — passing over both the north and south poles. Hadley Baxter plays Marian in the 2014 movie. Both she and Marian have similar stories — they didn’t know their parents. Hadley’s parents were both assumed drowned when their plane crashed into one of the Great Lakes. Marian’s mother was assumed drowned in the sinking of the Josephina Eterna, captained by the father. At the time Marian and her twin brother Jamie were only a few months old. The father chooses to leave with them in a lifeboat rather than do the honorable thing and go down with his ship. For this he is gaoled for some years and the twins grow up in Montana barely cared for by a dissolute uncle.
The twins roam through the forests with their lifelong friend Caleb. From a young age Jamie shows talent that he will become a gifted artist. Marian leaves school at fourteen and inadvisably accepts an offer by a wealthy bootlegger to pay for her flying lessons. Initially she senses some kind of love for him. They marry when she is eighteen and he becomes aggressively possessive. Ultimately she manages to escape and much later she hears that he has been killed: was he shot by Caleb?
Caleb and Jamie are always at the centre of Marian’s life. During World War II she finds work delivering planes and gets to fly her dream — a spitfire. She is devastated when she hears that Jamie, who has been working as a war artist, has been killed.
Other reviewers have said that Shipstead deftly weaves the two stories of Marian and Hadley. I found the Hadley story a bit of an intrusion and was impatient to get back to the story of Marian. Nevertheless, it is important that near the beginning of the book Hadley is rehearsing the scene where Marian’s plane plunges into the icy Antarctic waters. We assume, like the rest of the world, that she drowned in 1950. But at the end of the book we learn that there was, in fact, another story.
I was with Marian all the way — understanding her love of being alone up in the clouds and willing her to achieve her ambition to circumnavigate the world. All of these things were so much more challenging for a young woman in the 1930s. Brilliant writing by Maggie Shipstead made this nearly 600 page book indeed a page-turner for me.