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Great Circle - Maggie Shipstead

As a reader, there’s something deeply satisfying when a propulsive plot is underpinned by thematic depth. What happens next? You’re compelled to turn the page, not to solve some mystery (though there’s a meaty one here), but because you’ve become so personally invested in the writing, characters and themes you are now, somehow, part of the story itself.

Maggie Shipstead’s Booker-shortlisted Great Circle charts the life of Marian Graves, a woman born to be a wanderer, whose dream – an unlikely one for a woman born early in the 20th century - is to fly.

Over 600 pages, the reader is inexorably drawn into this tale of empowerment, determination, and adventure. From escaping a sinking cruise liner to flying spitfires during WWII, from freighting black market booze to attempting to circumnavigate the globe (a ‘great circle’ from pole to pole), there’s plenty to propel the story – and our attention – forward.

Underpinning all this, however, are profound interrogations about our ability to see our lives, and the lives of others, with proper perspective. Marian flies because altitude gives her a sense of the wider world and her place within it. It gives her the wider view she needs to connect the dots of her own life so that they may tell a cohesive story. She chases the full picture, the great circle, even though the curved horizon can only give her a partial glimpse. The meaning of (a) life, the author seems to say, can only be grasped with the benefit of distance and time, a vantage point from which one can take in the whole.

Without this map-like view of their own lives, the women in Great Circle are buffeted by the elements, with only enough visibility to ponder the next course correction, when what they truly desire is to set their own destination.

More than a tale of female emancipation, Great Circle is about our yearning, as humans, to pull the word down to a scale that makes sense. Understanding one another requires proximity and intimacy. Understanding the grand mysteries of life – and love, and death – requires distance and perspective. How we navigate this contradiction is the question this genuinely wondrous novel sets out to answer.

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