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14Jun

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead review – a soaring achievement

Charting the parallel lives of two women – one an aviation pioneer, the other a modern movie star – this daring novel reaches great heights

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.”

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