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Migrating home

Migratory Animals by Mary Helen Specht

Juli Berwald 21 June 2015

Flights of fancy: details from the cover

Is it a particular characteristic of scientists to engage with big problems, while avoiding the more accessible ones?

In Migrating Animals, author Mary Helen Specht introduces us to Flannery, a meteorologist who studies the effects of climate change on monsoon patterns in Nigeria. She has seen up close the bitter effects on local farmers struggling to grow crops in the increasingly dry soil. Flannery’s lab has lost funding after an economic downturn, and Flannery must return to her home in Austin, Texas. She also leaves behind her kind Nigerian fiancé, Kunle.

Back in Texas, Flannery lands in a world she was fleeing when she signed up to work in Nigeria. A group of friends who first met at a prestigious science and engineering school bearing some similarity to Houston’s Rice University have all come to roost in Austin, and her interactions with them deplete Flannery’s already diminished energy stores. The story is told in the alternating viewpoints of these characters.

Flannery’s sister, Molly, has married a friend from college, Brandon, who researches the formation of snow. Molly, now pregnant, has also started to show clear signs of the degenerative nerve disease inherited from their mother. Flannery’s best friend Alyce, a textile artist, is suffering from a severe depression and the resulting marital problems with her husband Harry. Harry’s business partner and Flannery’s ex-boyfriend, Santiago, has nearly bankrupted their architecture firm.

With all the strife, it’s no wonder that Flannery searches desperately for a way back to the home she created with Kunle and Nigeria, where the problems, though climate-sized, are nowhere as intimate. This is a theme that is relatively unexplored in literature, and one I found compelling. Is it a particular characteristic of scientists to engage with big problems, while avoiding the more accessible ones?

The writing in Migratory Animals is often so vivid that it feels more like viewing one of Alyce’s tapestries than reading actual words. When Flannery teams up with her brother-in-law Brandon to develop an instrument that can make it snow in the Sahel, the proposition really allows Specht’s deftness with words to glitter. The scenes involving snow-making and snowflake formation are particularly gorgeous.

Specht’s debut is a unique and beautifully melancholy book. One criticism of Migrating Animals it’s that the pages are almost too small to hold the complexity of the characters. But Specht is not the kind of author that offers us simple stories or easy problems. And as the scientist in Flannery knows, the best questions — like how a disparate flock manages to make a long migration home — often lead to more questions than answers.