Flyaway is exquisite, exquisite, exquisite. Saying it once is not enough. And not just for emphasis: I’m hoping I can invoke even a fraction of the magic contained within Kathleen Jenning’s masterful little book.
Bettina lives with her mother in sleepy serenity, venturing out from her just-so home and her fragrant garden only when necessary. Her home is orderly; the outside world is dangerously uncouth. But when signs of her disappeared brothers wind up at her door and her fence, she can no longer maintain the pretense of perfect serenity. Something is upset in her world, something that made both her brothers and her father vanish one night, something that keeps her friends and neighbors glancing at her strangely. What do they know? What does she know? What’s out beyond the fences and into the trees, lurking in the bush?
The main story kept me breathless with delight, and then breathless with suspense and horror.
There’s as strong a sense of dread and place as True Detective (season one), a place a little bit familiar but a lot strange, full of tucked-away secrets. But it has none of True Detective’s sordidness, invoking instead a sense of deep wonder. It’s a tight and tense mystery veiled in even more mysteries, stories that hint and then dart away before they say too much. Stories like wild things that live outside of the fences of civilization, and then come peeking at the fences—or breaking down the gates.
There’s a kind of not-dog not-dingo that haunts the various tales a bit like the wolflike nightmares in Caitlin R. Kiernan’s Threshold. And the megarrity is close kin to Gene Wolfe’s alzabo, the animal mimic that approximates humanity. But the megarrity is far more fey where the alzabo bordered on sadistic, just as the not-dog is ambivalent and even benevolent as compared to Kiernan’s horrors.
It’s a glittering, cracked mirror of Australia the way American Gods is a reflection of America: it shows us a “bad land for gods,” an inhospitable place for absolutes. Many creatures—many stories—come and change and breed and change again, no longer kept within the structures of the people and lands that produced them. They’re no longer limited, which makes them powerful, but also makes them vulnerable. Anything could happen to them. Anything could happen to Bettina and her friends, chasing them. Anything at all.
That sense of limitless possibility is balanced out very nicely by Jennings’ strong understanding of story itself. I didn’t know what would happen next, but I did trust that Jennings would make sense of it. Like Gaiman, she has an instinct for the rhythms and shapes of stories, weaving them together with increasing complexity without losing the essential patterns.
Kathleen Jennings is like a lot of authors. Flyaway is like a lot of things. But they are ultimately only themselves, unique and set apart. Thisis easily the best thing I’ve read all year, crackling hot stories under a cool balm of gorgeous prose, the whole as bright a revelation as sunrise. It breathes the perfume of a hundred deadly flowers. It whispers the cries of a hundred strange creatures. It’s exquisite, exquisite, exquisite.
Flyaway will be published on July 28.