I've been a fan of Shipstead's ever since her clever and sophisticated 2012 dbut Seating Arrangements (winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize for writers under 30). She moves to Doubleday for this, her epic third novel (608pp), a full seven years in the writing...
This is truly exceptional storytelling, combining a sweeping arc of history with writing that, at sentence level, is near-flawless. Undoubtedly one of my novels of the year.
It is worth sticking with this gigantic novel if what you like is full immersion in a minutely described world full of adventure, passion and tragedy. All female life is here, plus mechanics, drugs, make-up, forests, whisky, Arctic wastes, starlight, war, gender fluidity, painting, masturbation, physics, babies, and the list goes on. It’s a glorious tribute to women who push the boundaries of their one, brief life, breaking the bonds of their place in history and their female bodies, to soar higher and faster than others; and the price they pay to live so fast.
There doesn’t seem to be much that the American writer Maggie Shipstead doesn’t cover in her third novel. The time frame ranges from 1909 to 2015 and its settings span the globe. Seriously obscure places crop up. And here’s just a selection of its themes: war, grief, rape, #MeToo, sex tapes, class, alcoholism, isolation, motherhood, sexuality, vegetarianism and prostitution. No one could accuse Great Circle of playing it safe.
This is a tremendously well-written book, epic in spirit and scope, swooping across continents and through time so effortlessly that it belies the seven years it apparently took to complete. Shipstead’s light-touch approach to period is the polar opposite of historical novelists who love to flaunt the depth of their research. Rather, with a luminous, masterful, show-not-tell technique, she glides seamlessly through the 20th century, immersing the reader in settings as diverse as a 1909 Glasgow dock and a 2014 LA film studio, in a way that feels almost televisual. Her cast is huge, too, from Marian’s wraith-like mother, Annabel, badly abused as a child and later poleaxed by maternal terror at the birth of Marian and Jamie, to the whores in a brothel to whom a young Marian delivers whisky during prohibition, but however bit their part, Shipstead lavishes on them the same attention.