August 6, 2020 1:28 PM EDT

In Charlotte McConaghy’s adult debut Migrations, animals are dying at an alarmingly fast rate. There are no more bears in the north or reptiles in the south. Big cats have disappeared. Wolves too. The novel’s quiet, bird-loving protagonist Franny Stone is specifically concerned with the Arctic tern, which has the longest migration of any animal in the world. The last flock is on its final descent, flying from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and Franny is determined to follow it.

The issue, though, is that Franny has no way of doing so—she doesn’t have a boat and has never sailed professionally. Migrations opens in Greenland, where Franny tracks down the captain of the Saghani and talks her way aboard. By chasing the terns, she argues, the crew will find the fish they desperately need to catch.

Immediately, the water is rough and the wind is freezing. Shortly into their journey, the vessel has to navigate around an iceberg, which McConaghy describes with thrilling intensity. But Franny isn’t scared—she’s ready to die on the boat if it comes to it. One of the crew members asks her why she’s so tired of living. She says to herself: “It’s not life I’m tired of, with its astonishing ocean currents and layers of ice and all the delicate feathers that make up a wing. It’s myself.”

As the Saghani continues on its dangerous trip, it becomes clear that Franny is not the person she says she is. Her passport is not her own. She’s writing letters to her husband but never sends them. The novel flips to earlier parts of Franny’s life, revealing the traumas of her past and the fierce attachment she has to the sea.

In piecing together who this mysterious protagonist really is, McConaghy creates a detailed portrait of a woman on the cusp of collapse, consumed with a world that is every bit as broken as she is. Migrations offers a grim window into a future that doesn’t feel very removed from our own, which makes Franny’s voice all the more powerful. In understanding how nature can heal us, McConaghy underlines why it urgently needs to be protected.

Write to Annabel Gutterman at annabel.gutterman@time.com.

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