- By Kathleen Jennings
- 176 pp.
- Reviewed by Mariko Hewer
- August 14, 2020
Steeped in magical realism, this debut novel examines human nature and choice.
The district of Inglewell, which comprises the towns of Woodwild, Carter’s Crossing, and Runagate, is an ancient and mysterious country. “Memory bled and frayed there, where ghosts stood silent by fenceposts,” reports Tina Scott, Runagate resident and part-time narrator of Flyaway, Kathleen Jennings’ debut novel.
“There the bone horse kept pace with night drivers, while high branches shifted continuously even on breathless days…”
Tina, who lives alone with her mother after her father and two brothers, Chris and Mitch, left town one night three years ago, seems content: “Nowadays our peace was broken only by wings outside the windows, the shifting of lace shadows.” Yet a nagging curiosity about where her brothers and father went, coupled with a crude message sent to her anonymously, sets Tina on an unforgettable and unpredictable journey with two former friends into the wilds of Inglewell.
Gary Damson, a fencer who respects boundaries, and Trish Aberdeen, a policeman’s rebellious daughter, at first seem unlikely companions for Tina; she disappeared out of their lives the night her father and brothers disappeared from hers. It quickly becomes clear, however, that Gary and Trish have questions of their own they want answered.
A short yet powerful scene among the three protagonists, for example, throws much of what we have learned about Tina thus far into doubt:
“‘Where was Tina that night?’ Gary continued…Trish turned to look at me, then back to Gary. ‘She was with us,’ she said slowly. ‘With you and me and Chris and Mitch.’ She rounded on me, furious, as if it were my fault she — we — had forgotten. She spoke quickly. ‘You were there the whole time! It was your idea. You got us in trouble, and you didn’t get blamed at all! It wasn’t fair! Then your dad disappeared, so everyone was sorry for you and no one wanted to dob you in. Shit. Gary. How did I forget?’”
Certainly, it seems that something more than Tina’s and Trish’s faulty memories is at work here. This is not a case of fading reminiscences, but rather of rearranged facts.
Interspersed with the chapters of the friends’ journey are Inglewell fairytales — the types of stories you might tell around a campfire, bright and glowing, a little dangerous in the darkness. Among them is the “school in the wilderness,” a terrifying variation on the Pied Piper that ends thus:
“Sometimes, people still find bones in the scrub. Here and there. Mostly you wouldn’t think to ask if they were human. They’re weathered and old, and some of them are small, and marked by thousands of tiny scratches, as might be left by age. Or teeth.”
Or Gary’s own story about visiting an abandoned sawmill as a young boy and finding a bottle whose “contents glittered and shifted like dust. Gold dust.” Is it any wonder he uncorked the bottle? Is it any wonder that, when the substance “rose, glittering like bubbles in lemonade,” he seized his chance and made three wishes, desperate and afraid to be in the bush near sundown?
Maybe not. But it is a trifle surprising that those wishes all came true.
The further the group gets from Runagate, the more Tina herself begins to question everything about her past. Did her father really simply leave, or is there a more sinister explanation for his absence? Were her brothers truly the “monsters” her mother remembers?
“There must be some deep aquifer of emotion I could not tap,” she muses. “I couldn’t have killed my father — a lady doesn’t. Had I known I was suspected of it? Closing my eyes, I felt gingerly among these stirred-up memories, not wanting to discover too much.”
Unfortunately for Tina, certain discoveries about her family make it impossible for her to remain aloof. The fairytales of Chris and Mitch, too, are part of this narrative, and she cannot escape them:
“Far as we had come from home today, we were still within Inglewell. The web of Runagate, Woodwild, Carter’s Crossing. The circle of my father’s laughter and my mother’s words. Whatever my brothers ought to be, whatever I was, we were trapped by our history.”
As you might imagine, Flyaway is not the sort of book to tie every loose end into a beautiful bow for the reader’s sake. But it will leave you feeling deeply satisfied — perhaps more so, in fact, because it allows you to write your own ending.
Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights of varying quality on Twitter at @hapahaiku.