Great Circle, which has been longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, is a novel of ambition and scope. It tells the story of Marian Graves, a fictional pioneering female pilot. The book follows Marian from the moment in 1914 when, as a baby, she is rescued from a sinking ship, through her childhood, disastrous marriage and adventures in the Second World War. It also charts her determination to fly, north–south, around the world, passing over both poles. Her aim is to ‘see as much as can be seen’ and to ‘measure my life against the dimensions of the planet’.
Troubled, contradictory, tough and authentic, Marian is both a woman of her time and a person who is constantly challenging and remaking the idea of what a woman can be. Shipstead’s account of Marian’s teenage years, spent in rural Montana with Wallace, her drunken artist uncle, is particularly compelling. The Prohibition world of moonshiners, bootleggers and brothels is lovingly re-created, as is the landscape of that region.
Around the story of Marian, Shipstead weaves numerous other narrative strands. Jamie, Marian’s twin brother, becomes an artist and her airborne quest for space and freedom is matched by his desire to achieve the same in his canvases: ‘He longed to communicate something not about trees but about