The Pocket Bookclub is not a fan of ‘fantasy’ but I keep trying. My favourite Jonathon Strange and Mr Norell fell flat but I had some success with books that err closer to magical realism. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht was warmly embraced.
Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings was a risky choice. Would I like it? Would this gothic fairytale-inspired novella venture into the ‘too much’ fantasy territory?
Let’s start with me!
The first thing I love about Flyaway is the sense of place. I grew up in a Queensland country town and Flyaway took me right back there. This is the town of Runagate.
Flyaway, Kathleen Jennings
‘Thirteen streets, one remaining pub, never a bank. One grocery store with a comfortable bench outside and air- conditioning sighing through the bright plastic strips curtaining the door. A water tower patterned in white and rust and shade. Three churches, each smaller than a house. The clawing precision of hard-one roses planted in wire-fenced on the buried corpses of roadside kangaroos. Geranuims hot as matches. The spice of pepperina, oleander’s poison-sapped glow, the hallowed death of angel’s trumpets as apricot as sunset. Showgrounds, handsome in dusty cream and pea-green paint; stockyards. A long low school smelling of squashed jam sandwiches, the heady scents of cheap felt-tips and novelty erasors.”
I can hear the silence. Testament to the skill of Jennings, she doesn’t tell us about the silence, only mentions sighing air-conditioning and then asks us to feel the heat of matches, see the shade, and smell the spice. The absence of sound is evident in every other of the senses.
But, this is not country you know. A first hint of this is the “troll rattle of an old timber bridge”.
Memory seeped and frayed there, where ghosts stood silent by fenceposts. There the bone horse kept pace with night drivers, while high branches shifted continuously even on breathless days and creaked with the passage of megarrities or other creatures unseen, and at midday, long shadows whispered under the trees. And what trees!Flyaway , Kathleen Jennings
Nor does Jennings shy away from the history of this country and the three towns held together by ribbons of roads, some ‘beaded with blood-red pebbles‘
(not stained by masscress, no, nor cursed, whatever people whispered about how Spicer family first established Runagate Station).Flyaway, Kathleen Jennings
Here we have the place, but what about the people? This is where Flyaway deserves a second read because, on the second read, you will find the people described with precision and subtlety you missed on the first read. Living together, homemakers, graceless Bettina and her mother Nerida, ‘as naturally elegant as a lily‘.
And driving the plot, the missing brothers
..boys rioting through the house, light hair feathered white from the sun, shouting like crows, always too much in the open air. Monsters! my mother had called them…Flyaway, Kathleen Jennings
And the missing father. It seems Bettina remembers too little until graffiti on the white picket fence and a grubby letter send her on a journey in an old ute with Trish Aberdeen and Gary Damson.
Here the tales of the past and the people and the place interweave and spin together. There is Linda Aberdeen (formerly Spicer) visiting her grandmother and told to stay on the path! And a skinny boy who is sent into a precarious building to retrieve magic objects. A man and his odd-looking bagpipes engaged to save a town from noxious weeds. The unseen may be seen, things you might hear in the trees.
Flyaway is a hybrid, sensitively aware colonisation that has imported and imposed stories in a landscape and country that already had rich stories and people.
These stories of Inglewell, like the tellers, are hybrids of tales from distant woods and forests. I cannot believe our silky oaks, our ironbarks, the shimmering brigalow are less handsome than those fabled groves. But the stories (even those like us, half made here) fit them uneasily.Flyaway, Kathleen Jennings
But what of the Pocket Bookclub? Well, surprisingly enough they liked it too. Just enough magic and not too much for them.
The Pocket Bookclub raged against a book of literary cocktails that only included quotes from men. We have embarked on a cunttail project, inventing a cunttail for every book we read in 2022. We made a literary cunttail book!
Literary Cunttails 2022 is hand drawn by Miriama and includes every recipe. Get a free copy.