Review: Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings

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In a small Western Queensland town, a reserved young woman receives a note from one of her vanished brothers—a note that makes question her memories of their disappearance and her father’s departure.

A beguiling story that proves that gothic delights and uncanny family horror can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun, Flyaway introduces readers to Bettina Scott, whose search for the truth throws her into tales of eerie dogs, vanished schools, cursed monsters, and enchanted bottles.

In these pages Jennings assures you that gothic delights, uncanny family horror, and strange, unsettling prose can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun.

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

The experience of reading this book is almost surreal. Flyaway has the quality of a dream that thins into wisps the moment you try to describe it. There’s a strange, almost drunken sense of unreality throughout, as if the world the author created would shift the moment you had your back turned. As if I might jolt awake at any second, lift my head, and find myself in a darkening room, alone, the book still left open on my chest. A part of my mind still thinks I imagined it, pages and spine and all. Maybe it was all a hallucination, however real it seemed in the moment.

Don’t remember this: the heft of a body, fully human, so much weightier than bird-boys and flower-women. Forget rending steel, the car where it slumped. Don’t remember where you dropped the keys (maybe they’ve been found, added to a rattling graveyard of metal). Don’t remember limping home through the trees, believing them empty.
They were always full of ghosts.
You were already becoming one.

              The story goes something like this:

              Once upon a time, there was a girl named Bettina who was so eager to forget.

              After her father disappeared, and her brothers left, a dusty, stale grief sat in the hollow of Bettina’s throat, and in their absence, her mother became the sun around which Bettina’s life revolved. Her mother’s demanding affection and her face, broken open with disappointment, beamed through the haze of Bettina’s days, and Bettina found no secret well of courage within to defy her. Instead, she obeyed her mother’s commands, guileless as a pedigreed house pet, and turned into a world unto herself, held tight and secretive, cut away from her friends and everyone else.

              Bettina hollowed, disappeared, but an ominous message scrawled in huge black letters on their neatly white fence opens up something in her. The words are a missed step, a sudden drop, and Bettina begins to question everything she’s known about her family and their town, but the terrible clear-eyed certainty that the message held the answers to her father’s and brother’s disappearances remains, sliding into the back of Bettina’s neck like a talon.

              Bettina could try and convince herself she had imagined it all and then it would be that way. She could curl back under the beam of her mother’s attention like the shell of a snail, and this whole affair would be nothing but the wisp of a nightmare. But the pull of secrets unraveled, and mysteries unsolved, was too strong. Someone had left a door wide open for Bettina, and she was determined to walk through it.

“There aren’t any stories except the ones we bring with us,” […]
Because even if she were right, something had to happen to all the stories no one wanted. Histories and memories that had been taken into the trees, beyond the fences and roads—those seams of the world from which reason and civilisation leak—and abandoned.

Jennings melts the raw materials of fairytales and Australian folk-horror and melds them into a coruscatingly original assemblage of tales that are at once tender and terrifying, beautiful and profoundly upsetting, intimate and as precisely attuned to the perils and sorrows of our times as stones in a mosaic.

              The small Western Queensland town where the story is set is a place where you can scoop secrets from the air by the handfuls. A town that has dreams and nightmares and memories to spare—and stories too. Stories that hang heavy like ghosts. Stories that have long since been smothered in a blanket of silence; doors locked, windows sealed against the sound, drawn curtains. You can hear life pricking the stillness—but that quietness is deceptive: somewhere, just below the surface, someone is screaming.

              And in Flyaway, these stories thunder.

              Flyaway wades heart-deep in the forest of the town’s memory, past the thorn-bush thicket of the past, rooting out secrets and darkness. Unveiled in a chilling and clarifying fashion are warning tales of abuse sweetened into love tales, of possessive, conditional, desire-to-own masquerading as love, of betrayal and complacency and violence softened into myth. The words are a pry bar slipped into a crack, and twisted to break it all open: they tell a story of debts called in and torments come a-knocking, of magic that defies theft and lands full of vengeance and wrath and searing anguish, the cords of its Indigenous souls so entangled in it that it can’t let go. It’s a scraping of truths that draws blood, that hurts jagged.

Terrors and wonders jostle beautifully, furiously together in Flyaway. There’s a subtlety and nuance to Jenning’s imaginative storytelling that barters for your attention with its dangers and its mysteries, and an intensity that creeps over you slowly, quietly, and then all at once. The writing, while clear and vivid as crystal, is full of nameless currents, like shifting sands concealing a hidden core of marvels and horrors. Grip the story by the base and pull, and the sound of ripping roots will flow into you, rippling you like wind over grass, the scent of angry tales rising raw and wild as the damp shreds stick to your hands and the sap trickles like blood across your skin.

Jenning’s startling and haunting images did not shimmer and fade from view like a mist once I turned the last page. Instead, they itched at the back of my mind, and lingered behind my eyelids hours later, playing across the darkness again and again. I still find myself circling back to my favorite passages, running my fingers over the words, letting them sink into me, like a stone sinking soundlessly into deep water.

             A must-read.

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