It’s the near future. Animal populations have plummeted and 80% of species are extinct. The forests are so rare that you need to make a booking to visit one. Commercial fishing faces prohibition and, when vessels take to the seas, their crew are increasingly desperate for one last big catch. Birds also face extinction. The Arctic terns, a species evolved to fly across the world on 40,000km annual journeys, are on their last migration to Antarctica.
Into the mix is Franny, an environmentalist and woman with a death wish. She talks her way on to one of the few remaining fishing vessels with the aim of following the last of the birds.
But of course, wherever you go, you always take yourself. Franny spends the journey trying to escape her past yet her rumination repeatedly circles back to her childhood in Australia and Ireland, as well as a stint in prison.
Speculative fiction featuring a world ravaged by climate change makes riveting, if grim, subject matter.
Joining the ranks of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Emily St John Mandel’s Stations 11 is The Last Migration by the Sydney-based writer Charlotte McConaghy. But it’s a different sort of climate novel, one in which the main character’s damaged psyche is as much a story as the damaged environment. A review in the Guardian last week called it “an aching and poignant book, and one that’s pressing in its timeliness”.
The 31-year-old wrote The Last Migration over two years, a time during which the pace of climate destruction threatened to overwhelm anything a writer could imagine.
“I wanted to try and engage with the climate crisis in an intimate way,” she told Guardian Australia. “It’s hard to nail down where the book came from. But I had Toni Morrison’s words in my head: ‘If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ I love that. It really speaks to me.”
This is McConaghy’s first work of literary fiction, after a history publishing in science fiction and fantasy genres, including a romantic fantasy series with Bantam.
“I wanted to write about the way the natural world is disappearing but I didn’t know a way in.”
The way in, she says, was to “go travelling. I went to Ireland and Iceland, and I thought about these incredible journeys of the terns and these people who study these journeys.”
The book became a story of a double journey: the migration of the birds, and a broken woman’s travelling to the end of the earth.
Much of the book is told in flashbacks, the action jumping between the south coast of New South Wales to the west coast of Ireland and to Greenland.
“I’ve always been fascinated with Ireland: the landscape, the colours, the people and the poetry and music. I love it so much and am really drawn to it. I was fascinated with writing a character from there. It was a way to connect more with the place.”
McConaghy says she also wanted to have a character who was “of two places”.
“I had lived in 21 houses by the time I was 21, as a result I definitely know how it feels to feel as if you are not sure where you belong and feeling as if you are between two worlds.”
Writing a book that has fairly bleak subject matter was like “riding waves”, she says, that would manifest in periods of deep melancholy. “As writers we have a natural inclination to melancholy,” she says. “I do my best work when I am in a state of melancholy. It’s just an emotional space that I can dig into.”
Now working on her second book of literary fiction, McConaghy has found “it’s been really difficult to write during a pandemic. I am way less focused than I would normally be.”
When she gets stuck, she returns to nature writing. “I love [poet] Mary Oliver. She’s just wonderful and such a huge inspiration for me. If I got stuck I would go into the backyard and read a book of her poetry and cry and be able to write again.”
• The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy is out now through Hamish Hamilton