Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead review – a soaring achievement

·3 min read

A great circle, Maggie Shipstead’s third novel explains on the opening page, is “the largest circle that can be drawn on a sphere”. The equator is one; so is every line of longitude. The novel’s heroine, pioneering aviator Marian Graves, was attempting to become the first person to fly a great circle intersecting both poles in 1950 when her plane disappeared somewhere in the Antarctic. Decades later, her enigmatic, fragmentary journal is discovered, wrapped in a life-preserver. “What I have done is foolish; I had no choice but to do it,” she has written.

Great Circle is a daringly ambitious novel, traversing in Marian’s story the history of early-20th-century aviation, Prohibition, the Great Depression and the second world war. Threaded through it is a parallel contemporary narrative, recounted by disgraced Hollywood starlet Hadley Baxter, who is trying to revive her career by playing Marian in a biopic. Hadley’s drily cynical voice has more than a touch of Fleabag about it, offering a knowing and prematurely jaded insider’s view of the movie industry (“my career is no longer a blow job-based barter economy,” she remarks). She is positioned as a counterpoint to Marian, whose pure and single-minded determination to fly contrasts sharply with Hadley’s tendency to drift through life with occasional bouts of self-sabotage. “I needed the relief of being someone who wasn’t afraid,” Hadley confesses. But both women, in their separate ways, are pursuing freedom in a male world that wants to confine them within preconceived ideas about who and what they should be. “We’re celebrated for marrying,” Marian writes to her twin brother, Jamie, “but after that we must cede all territory and answer to a new authority like a vanquished nation.”

She is interested in the way stories and lives alter through successive interpretations, like 'a game of telephone'

Shipstead, who won the LA Times First Fiction prize for her bestselling debut, Seating Arrangements, writes with precision on both macro and micro levels, bringing a sure-footed fluency to descriptions of landscape, potted highlights of aviation history and close-up details of people and places (Prohibition-era prostitutes work out of basement apartments, “poking their heads up into the alleys like lascivious gophers”). The characters are preoccupied by questions of scale: Marian with the enormity of land and ocean seen from her cockpit; Jamie, an artist, with the impossibility of capturing grand visions on canvas: “Everything I want to paint is too big, and so I’ve started to think what I really want to paint is the too-bigness.” There is a sense that Shipstead, too, is inspired by the idea of creating on a vast canvas; this is a novel that invites the reader to immerse themselves in the sweep of history, the rich and detailed research, and part of the pleasure is being carried along by the narrative through all its digressions and backstories.

The danger of any novel with a dual plot is that one strand outshines the other, and that is Great Circle’s weakness; Marian is a more compelling and original character than Hadley, whose satirical observations on the absurdities of life in LA, though very funny, can feel like well-trodden ground. But Shipstead is interested in the way stories and lives alter through successive interpretations, like “a game of telephone”, and so Hadley’s pursuit of the truth about Marian is necessary for closing the circle. Like her fictional pilot, Shipstead has aimed high; in both cases, the result is a breathtaking, if flawed, achievement.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead is published by Doubleday (£16.99). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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