Maggie Shipstead’s third novel Great Circle was shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. And for good reason. This is a shaggy, great American novel spanning the last century but focussing on the golden age of aviation, stunningly written, full of rich characters and complex themes, fascinating situations, and plenty of resonance.
Great Circle is built around the stories of two very different women. Marian Graves is born from tragedy early in the Twentieth Century, grows up in a hardscrabble backwater and has a laserlike focus on her dream of being a pilot. After an eventful life, this builds up to an attempt to fly around the world via the North and South Poles, a journey that will result in her disappearance in its final leg between Antarctica and New Zealand. Marian’s life is juxtaposed with and explored by Hadley Baxter, a Hollywood starlet who blows up her career and then finds it again by playing Marian in a film based on a biography that itself is partly based on the logbook of Marian’s famous final flight.
But Great Circle is so much more than this brief summary. Marian’s story runs across the Great Depression and the Second World War and is interspersed particularly with that of her twin brother Jamie. But Shipstead also interweaves also stories of the landscape and of the great figures in the history of flight including, Elinore Smith, Jean Batten Charles Kingsford Smith, and of course, Charles Lindberg and Amelia Earheart. Meanwhile Hadley’s story, while more contained, considers more modern issues of social media, power, stardom, fandom and the role of art in reflecting real lives. But there is plenty of linkages between them aside from the fact that the two main characters are, as Hadley puts it: “products of vanishment and orphanhood and negligence and airplanes and uncles”. While Marian’s story takes the front seat for the bulk of the novel, Hadley’s tale is interesting on its own but also as an important counterpoint, and a modern reflection and interpretation on what actually happened in Marian’s life
While possibly Great Circle might not contain the literary fireworks that would take it over the top for the Booker Prize it is a worthy nominee and, more than that, an immersive, affecting, resonant and relevant novel full of wonder, joy and heartbreak.