Book Review: Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
December 5th, 2022
Review by Arlie Moberly
Photograph by Elena Dressler
‘I was born to be a wanderer. I was shaped to the earth like a seabird to a wave.’ So begins pilot Marian Graves, the central character of Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle, in the final entry of her diary before departing on a dangerous flight. Marian cannot stay still, or grow roots. Her great need is to be up in the sky, chasing the endlessness of the horizon. Her final journey is an attempt to complete a ‘Great Circle’, circumnavigating the globe. She knows it is perilous, but she is compelled to do it anyway.
At the heart of Maggie Shipstead’s Booker-shortlisted Great Circle are two interlinked themes: the different ways that women seek freedom and why we feel compelled to pursue the unknown, even at great risk. In telling a story that spans across the twentieth century, Shipstead pushes us to think about gender and history in new ways. Shipstead follows Marian from her childhood through Prohibition, across the United States and wartime England to this final journey, tracing her obsession with flight. Marian’s story is intertwined with a more contemporary tale set in the pre-#MeToo 2010s: that of Hollywood actor Hadley Baxter, who hopes to reignite her career by playing Marian on screen. As Hadley learns more about Marian, she becomes focused on knowing Marian beyond the stitched-together narrative the film has created. But Marian Graves is not altogether knowable; pieces are missing; there will be things which must be lost to history.
Shipstead expertly treads a difficult line, depicting the ever-shifting constraints on women - from the refusal of many male pilots to teach Marian how to fly, to internet criticism attacking Hadley for her relationships - while still depicting the creative attempts of these women to circumvent and break these restrictions. Nor does it depict a straightforward narrative of progress. Shipstead is attentive to the myriad ways women have experienced these challenges. These range from the aggressions of Marian’s husband, to the need for Air Transport Auxiliary girls in the war to compliment their male ‘check’ pilots to soothe their egos and thus ensure that the pilots would sign them off, to the difficulty of finding an abortion. Interspersing the personal stories of Marian and Hadley with the experiences of women from flying history, Shipstead shows how their experiences are unique but nonetheless microcosms of something much broader. Marian experiences many different forms of discrimination and violence, but she is never a helpless victim. In the sky, no-one can demand anything of her. Flying, she feels free.
Hadley is a harder sell as a character, partly because Marian is so immediately compelling that Hadley feels less believable in comparison. But she in her own way is challenging the scrutiny of her environment and the way Hollywood treats women, and criticises the pressure key players put on her to exchange sexual favours for opportunities. Placing her in Hollywood a few years before #MeToo, Shipstead evokes the pressures of it as an environment. The twenty-first century, then, comes with its own challenges for women. Hadley’s sarcasm contrasts with Marian’s directness, and we feel the conflict between the two of them, even as Hadley develops an obsession with Marian and feels a kinship with her. There is and has been more than one way to chafe against the restraints of womanhood, Shipstead reminds us. And such women did not, do not, have to be perfect. Many critics have pointed to Hadley as a weaker character. Partly, they reach such a conclusion because she is less likeable. But in many ways, this is exactly what makes her valuable. Shipstead makes an important point by willingly exposing Hadley’s flaws: we do not have to love these women to criticise their environments. Shipstead’s willingness (and ability) to write characters who both fascinate and at times frustrate us, is vital to the book’s success. Sadly, it is still not done as much as it is talked about. Even if Shipstead does not execute it perfectly, she deserves credit for the attempt, and for intertwining these two stories.
The gaps between the film and the real Marian Graves come into starker focus towards the end of the novel through the dual narrative and Hadley’s attempts to discover what really happened to Marian. The loss of the queer stories in Marian’s life to the sands of time (until Hadley discovers her personal letters) highlights a point that many advocates for queer history have been making in other contexts: we were always here, you just didn’t see us. The heterosexual storylines of the film reminds us that in retelling these stories, we can make people into entirely different figures, myths and symbols, images good for a final shot or a headline. It reminds us queerness was part of the fabric of this history, even if the book does not need to be about that. Shipstead manages to focus on women’s stories without forgetting how these intertwined with the stories of other marginalised groups challenging boundaries in the twentieth century. Marian’s journal equivocates about whether she even wants the story to be told. ‘No one should ever read this. My life is my one possession’, she writes at the end of the final entry. But the final line questions it: ‘And yet, and yet, and yet.’ And Marian leaves the journal where it might, one day be found (as indeed it is). In considering the mis-recreation of Marian’s story, and her own confusion over whether she wanted it to even be known, and the aspects of it that she wished to bury, Shipstead encourages us to explore the problem of any storytelling about the past. We might create something that seems complete, but it will be complete as something different.
The characters in Great Circle are each, in their own way, pursuing a different form of freedom. What do we need to feel alive? What do we need to function as humans? In its exploration of this theme, Great Circle feels like it belongs more to a series of mountaineering and adventure stories based on true events than to a tradition of fiction. Everyone, Shipstead reminds us, has different answers. For Marian’s twin, Jamie, images are the most important expression. He, too, wants to think about space - but he does not have to fly into it, to chase the horizon, to feel a sense of an infinite expanse. For Caleb, their childhood friend and Marian’s sometime-lover, the hills and the woods are where he finds freedom. But for Marian, it is, for most of her life, flight. She needs to cross the horizon. She chases a tantalizing, probably out-of-reach goal. But it keeps her going. The same might be said for her more implicit desire, for recognition and respect as a woman (or, at least, for her gender not to hold her back so much). Freedom on land as well as in the air. ‘What I have done is foolish’, she writes. ‘I had no choice but to do it.’ Perhaps the same can be said of Shipstead’s project. It is vast and ambitious - the original manuscript stretched to over a thousand pages, and she takes on a substantial challenge in trying to intertwine these two stories. But both are absolutely necessary; as they begin to speak to each other, they push us to think in different ways about gender and history. In intertwining these narratives, Great Circle refuses to let us jump to simple conclusions, highlighting the complexity of women’s efforts to challenge different forms of constraint over the course of a century.