Flyaway

Bettina lives in a very small town with her mother somewhere in the outback. It’s an area of farmers and hard scrabble and everyone being in everyone else’s business; they’re a long way from everyone else. Her father and brothers have been missing for some time, but Bettina’s life seems to be going its own quiet, easy way, until something comes along that starts a disruption. And then she chooses to follow where that disruption leads, becomes (re)acquainted with two of her peers, and goes on the sort of literal and figurative journey that means you can never properly go home again.

Like most Australians, I am a city/suburbs person. Like slightly fewer Australians I have spent some time “in the bush” although never for especially extended periods (days and weeks, never years). For all that much of the (white) Australian apparently has this romantic notion of, or attachment to, “the outback”, that’s not the reality for most people – who’ve never spent long periods outside of a large town, never worked on a farm (I’ve visited but not worked), don’t really know what it’s like away from streetlights.

All of that is, I think, an interesting backdrop for coming to this novel. I definitely think Australian audiences will come at it differently from, in particular, an American one. For Australians, the fact that Jennings did in fact grow up in a rural area will be an important part of trusting her insight and the way she sets her story up; it certainly was for me. Not that someone like me couldn’t write a story about an outback town and have it work – but I trust Jennings and her observations because I assume she is writing at least partly from experience.

Jennings calls this an “Australian gothic.” I did not study the gothic genre at uni, when most of my friends did; it has never especially appealed to me as a genre. I think, in my head, it comes too close to the aspects of horror that I dislike; I don’t enjoy being made to feel uncomfortable. So I can’t speak to the accuracy of the gothic label – although there were definitely bits where I felt uneasy, and was put in mind of the stories we used to tell each other as kids, about things like the Min Min lights and other such things.

There are many things to love about this book. Firstly, the structure. The narrative proper is interrupted every second chapter by the insertion of a story-within-a-story. These might be told by someone who’s present, or be second or third-hand. Their connection to present events isn’t always obvious, but always becomes so. And they’re generally linked to some piece of folklore, or apparently superstitious warning, that might be straightforward to ignore during daylight but becomes less so at twilight. This was an intriguing way to flesh out the story, and also contributed to a sense of … disconnect; of things not working exactly as they should, because the narrative isn’t straightforward. It left me feeling unbalanced, like I wasn’t sure things were happened as I expected.

Secondly, the art. Jennings is probably most well known in Australia, and indeed overseas, for her art – which isn’t entirely fair since she’s written and had published any number of short stories; but her book covers, in particular, have had a fair bit of notice, and justifiably so. It’s her own artwork on the cover, which is awesome; there are also fantastic pieces at the start of every chapter, and on the folded covers. They make me particularly happy to own this in hard copy.

And thirdly, of course, the writing and the story itself. Publishers Weekly describes it as “spellbinding, lyrical prose”, Kelly Link says that her prose “dazzles”, Holly Black that it is “exquisitely rendered.” All of that. Jennings evokes a particular feeling of Australia – the space, the dust, the sun, the trees, the oppressive expanse – that made me glad I was reading this in my nice suburban house (even if it is during lockdown), and not while out camping, because I think that being in the bush while reading it might have been just too much. It would have made it too… real. So the setting works brilliantly; and the people do, too. My nan moved to a small town after marriage when she was 20 years old; into her 70s some of her peers still treated her as new to the place. Small towns can have delineations that strangers don’t see – I’ve heard the stories of Catholic and Protestant areas in teeny little Victorians towns – and that’s brought to the fore here, too. And then there’s the folklore, and the uncomfortable sense that maybe more is going on beneath the surface than is immediately obvious…

I really hope Flyaway gets a lot of notice, and from a wide-ranging audience. A lot of Australians will enjoy it for the way it plays with notions of “The Australian outback” – and frankly it’s just gorgeous.

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