Flyaway, Kathleen Jennings (Tor.com Publishing 978-1-25026-049-9, $19.99, 176pp, hc) July 2020.
The remarkable imagination of Kathleen Jennings is familiar to, I’d guess, many thousands of people across the world. Her work as an illustrator has garnered her multiple awards and nominations, and she has designed book covers for Small Beer Press, Tor.com Publishing, and other presses. Her work feels like Quentin Blake crossed with Jane Austen, with a whisper of Angela Carter. There’s delight and fancy – line drawings of people with dots for eyes and small decorative elements dancing around their heads – but there are also creeping vines and transformed creatures.
Jennings’s first book, the novella Flyaway, owes much more to Angela Carter than the other influences on her illustration. It’s a dark story – or really an intertwined handful of dark stories, connected by family, landscape, and magic. Danger hums underneath the tale, whether from the creatures at the edge of town or the people within it, and fully emerges only at the emotional peak of each story Jennings weaves into the whole. The multiple nature of the novella means that the reader cannot forget the very real existence of this danger, but if she understands stories as well as Jennings does, she knows when to cover her eyes. Flyaway‘s narrator is 19-year-old Bettina Scott, alternately known as Tina and Tink. Three years ago, something extremely disruptive happened to Tina, removing her brothers, father, and friends from her life and changing her relationship with her delicate, oppressive mother. With inexplicable inevitability, Tina asks two former friends, Trish and Gary, for help in resolving the mystery of what happened to her brothers. They travel with her far out of town to a ruined house, where she learns just how many secrets she has been keeping from herself.
This outline does not properly communicate the reading experience of Flyaway, which is wonderfully lush and profoundly confusing. The novella includes multiple stories told by the older relatives of Tina, Gary, and Trish, all of which are spookier and more tightly composed than the novella as a whole. For example, ”The School in the Wilderness” tells a perverse Pied Piper of Hamlin tale, involving the invasive overgrowth of lantern-bush (I, an American, thought of kudzu) and the consequences of a town’s ingratitude. It’s a perfect little story, told with increasing tension and extraordinary confidence, and it contrasts unfortunately with the messier, somewhat more forced aspects of the main narrative. The mystery of what happened to Tina’s family sometimes feels less like a mystery and more like information deliberately withheld so as to inspire narrative chaos. Keeping all the characters and family connections straight is a challenge, in spite or perhaps because of how densely this novella is written. The book dives and swoops in calculated arcs, taking the reader along only some of the time, and this can grow exasperating.
However, the rewards of Flyaway are so phenomenal that confusion and contrivances are well worth it. It’s beautifully written, for one thing, wrought in as much detail and loveliness as Jennings’s illustrations: ”Through the soles of her feet and hands, through her skin, the land sang to her: dark and silver, the bones of the world.” Its supernatural qualities are thoroughly unique, unlike any contemporary fantasy I’m familiar with. Jennings invents creatures like the megarrity and the bone horse, writing of them as if they’re long-established. Primarily, though, she gives to stories the importance, the downright holiness, that every good storyteller knows they deserve: ”’There aren’t any stories except the ones we bring with us,’ Trish Aberdeen used to say… even if she was 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.”
It should be no surprise that Kathleen Jennings’s debut novel is splendid and unusual, that it feels like a dispatch from another, finer world, that it frightens and enchants in the same breath. No one who has followed her career would expect anything less. The surprise may be with what poeticism Jennings can assemble a sentence, and with what complexity she can put together a short book. There is no need for Flyaway to be so complex, of course – it’s at its best when it tells a discrete and uncomplicated story – but the pleasures of a second reading are much greater that way. Perhaps that was Jennings’s intention all along.
Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (Kernpunkt Press), an SPD fiction bestseller. Her work as a book critic has appeared in The Washington Post, The Believer, The Guardian, and many other places. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.
This review and more like it in the July 2020 issue of Locus.
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