“Nothing else in the world beyond but trees”: Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings

Once upon a time there was a lonely young woman. Her father was dead and her brothers were missing and only her mother, a woman of hard edges and a disappointing gaze, remained. Bettina Scott wants for nothing, wants nothing, has forgotten how to want. Her mother’s commands rule her life and leave no room for anything else. One day, she finds an ominous message left by one of her missing brothers. Despite her mother’s icy warnings, Bettina solicits the assistance of a rough young man, Gary Damson, and a bitter young woman, Trish Aberdeen. Their journey takes them deep into the wilds and far from normal and known.

At 19, Bettina Scott, known by her former friends as Tina and by her lost brothers and father as Tink, should be starting her adult life, but instead she is smothered by her overbearing mother. When presented with the opportunity for adventure, she leaps at it, albeit reluctantly. Breaking her mother’s rules terrifies her for reasons she can’t understand, but the need for freedom and choice is too great. Gary Damson comes from a long line of people who “keep up fences, walk boundaries” and never get involved while Trish Aberdeen is from a family who props up the status quo. The Scotts leave chaos in their wake, no matter how mild the matronly Nerida Scott may seem.

Classic fairy tales, the ones that grew out of the tangled mess of folklore and mythology and were already ancient when they were finally written down centuries ago, often hold a kernel of morality at their core. Seething between hungry wolves and cursed princesses are lessons about the cruelties of life and the power of choice. The same is true of Flyaway. In many ways, the novella is a fairy tale about fairy tales. The history of the three towns in Inglewell is so unsettling and strange that it can only be told as if it were a fantastical story. But those fairy tales also shift the narrative around Tina, Trish, and Gary. As they live through their own fairy tale, the myths and legends they grew up hearing take on new relevance.

Stories are stories, but stories can also be real. They can be truths pretending to be lies and lies masquerading as truths. And here’s where the moral of the story comes in. Flyaway isn’t just about three teens on a magical quest and the bone horses and bird boys they encounter along the way. It is a mythologizing of a painful reality. We tell the story of a king who is so enamored with a sleeping princess that he fathers two children by her, but brush over the truth that she was raped and abandoned with no say over her body or future. So too do the stories of Inglewell. The wandering magician suddenly becomes more cunning than cheeky when we learn how he used his magic to kill and torment. Abuse is passed down from generation to generation, leaving its bite marks on each. What Tina, Trish, and Gary uncover is a story of the truth, a real experience hushed up and pushed aside until it becomes legend.

Kathleen Jennings has crafted a fairy tale with its bones in the Old World and its blood and viscera from Down Under. The magic that feeds the land and births the creatures that haunt it has existed longer than the white people who have claimed the territory for themselves. But their dreams and nightmares and their hopes and fears, have shaped the magic into something else: an Australian fairy tale set in a settlement on the edge of the wilderness. Here, mercurial outsiders turn the land against its colonizers and in turn are taken by the land. Jennings’ story is one of payments due. Of debts collected. Of thefts punished.

Flyaway is magnificently written and feels like a folktale both old and new. Jennings’ use of language is as uncanny as it is gorgeous. It’s the kind of story where you can smell the macadam baking in the sun and hear the crackle of dry grass.

“It was a fragile beauty: too easy to leach with dust and history, to dehydrate with heat, bleed with the retort of a shotgun or the strike of a bullbar, blind with sun on metal. Easy to turn from it, disgusted and afraid…Memory bleed 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.”

Flyaway is a nearly perfect novella. It sings with pain and roars with power. Although it is short, it is neither spare nor unfulfilled. Kathleen Jennings has a voice unlike any other, and I long for more.

Flyaway is available from Tordotcom Publishing.
Read an excerpt here.

Alex Brown is a teen services librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.

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