Booker longlist choice a great satisfying novel

Review: Vivien Horler

Great Circle, by Maggie Shipstead (Doubleday)

In her acknowledgements at the end of this marvellous novel, author Maggie Shipstead thanks her editor for “paring down an unwieldy thousand-page manuscript into this slender wisp of a thing”.

Well, Great Circle, is not really a wisp of a thing, running to 589 pages, but quite frankly I enjoyed it so much I would happily have settled for the 1 000-page version.

A great circle is the largest circle that can be drawn on a sphere. The equator is a great circle, as is every line of longitude.

Marian Graves is an early female aviator, and her dream is to fly around the world, north to south and back. In her flight log she writes she was born to be a wanderer, “shaped to the earth like a seabird to a wave”.

And eventually she and a navigator take off, from New Zealand, via the Cook Islands, Hawaii, Alaska, Norway’s Svalbard, Malmo in Sweden, Rome, Gabon, Windhoek, Cape Town, Maudheim in Antarctica and finally to Little America on the Ross Ice Shelf. And there, with the end in sight, things go wrong.

Great Circle, longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, is a saga, focusing on the lives of twins Marian and Jamie, who lose their mother in a shipwreck when they are just infants. Their father abandons them too, and they are taken in by their uncle, an artist, who lives on a smallholding in Montana.

The uncle doesn’t bring them up so much as ignore them, and they have what sounds like an idyllic childhood, swimming in the creek, walking in the mountains, riding their horse bareback.

Marian is a tomboy, refuses to wear dresses, and is an avid reader. Her father, a former ship’s captain, has left his library at his brother’s, and most of the books are accounts of travel. She tries to imagine what life is like in the snowy north and the limitless south.

One day in 1927, aged about 12, she is riding her horse in the mountains when a biplane roars over, so low she feels she could touch its wheels. The plane is flown by a barnstormer, one of many who discovered after World War I that America did not have much call for their flying skills.

She persuades her uncle to take her to the local airfield where she meets the barnstormer and goes up for a brief flip, during which the pilot does both a roll and a loop. Marian thinks she should be afraid, but feels only lightness.

And so begins Marian’s dream: she wants to fly, she will be a flier. There are challenges though – she has no money for flying lessons, nor does her uncle. She has no plane. The pilots based at the local airfield won’t teach her.

Able to drive, she drops out of school and takes a job delivering produce for a baker. Tucked inside many of the baskets of bread and cakes are bottles of moonshine, for this is the era f Prohibition (we think we had it tough with a few months of not being able to buy alcohol during the pandemic – in the US Prohibition lasted for nearly 14 years although, like here, people could get booze if they knew where to look).

Marian starts saving. Eventually she meets Barclay, an older man and a rancher who has made a fortune as the kingpin of a major booze-smuggling ring. He is bewitched by Marian, wants to possess her – and he pays for flying lessons. Marian is uneasy, understanding that someday there will be a reckoning, but she needs to fly.

We follow Marian’s life, with and without Barclay, through the years. When the US enters World War II, Marian joins the Air Transport Auxiliary in Britain and works delivering aircraft, including Spitfires and Hurricanes, from factories to airfields and maintenance units, freeing up male air force pilots for war.

She is driven by flying, wanting to go further, higher, faster. And all this is preparation for her dream, her great circle expedition.

Shipstead has interwoven Marian’s story with that of Hadley Baxter who in 2014 is a Hollywood starlet cast to play Marian in a biopic. Hadley is wealthy and apparently successful, but her habits of drinking, drugs and casual sex mean her life is a mess.

But she becomes fascinated by Marian, going so far as to have a couple of flying lessons. She is drawn into the story of Marian’s life, and thanks to the discovery of a cache of letters, discovers that the script of the film, based on Marian’s own flightlog and a biograph, is not the whole truth.

This is a hefty, readable and magnificent tale and I found it utterly satisfying.

  • This novel was one of Exclusive Books’ top 25 books for July.

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