Oh, what a strange and wonderful gothic novella is Flyaway (Picador 2020) by debut author Kathleen Jennings. The prose in this magical story is beautiful, evocative, and endlessly fascinating. It reads like a fairy tale or a fable, a myth or a legend.
Set in outback Queensland, where country folk believe in superstitions and the power of the unknown, magical realism blends seamlessly with a tangible story of a young woman living a quiet life in the small town of Runagate. Bettina lives with her complicated, fragile and very proper mother. Her father and brothers have long since disappeared. But when a cryptic note appears, Bettina is forced to confront what really happened in the past, both in this town and to her family.
If you are looking for a standard mystery with a tidy resolution, this is not the book for you. This is a mysterious mystery, an entangled mess of stories and rumours, magic and fantasies. Flyaway is a dark book full of secrets and hidden places, quietened tales and buried truths. This is the kind of book that you read, devouring every word, every sentence, with wonder and yet as you progress through the pages, you feel you are coming no closer to a conclusion. Different stories are presented by different narrators. The thread of Bettina’s story is always there but often blurred by the complex tales surrounding it.
I did have some trouble keeping track of who is who, and how they are all related, where the stories begin and how they intersect. Once I’d finished, I felt like I needed to go back to the beginning and read it again, with a clearer head. I felt like this book had cast a spell on me and muddled my brain. There are so many clever subplots and side stories that mirror the novella’s eerie tone; they are unnerving and ridiculous and impossible and yet somehow they are happening. There are stories about the land and our connection to it, our relationships with others, about history and memories and how they are not always the same, about wonder and strangeness and curiosity and madness and loyalty and death.
There is a rising and sinister sense of pending dread throughout, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was, or why it was there, or which character was feeding it. There is just this awful sense that something is not quite right, even with the perfectly normal parts of the book, and a creeping fear that something very bad is going to happen, or has happened, or might happen, and that nothing will be the same again. One of the final scenes is so creepy it gave me goosebumps.
If you love Max Porter’s Lanny, this book will appeal. It is strange and wonderful, weird and powerful, indescribable and ethereal, unbelievable, unsettling, beautiful and terrible. It is such an odd book. And yet that oddness makes it unique. Read it for the language, for the voice, for the evocative description and for the magical realism. I don’t fully understand this book, but I fully appreciate the skill of the author and the depth of her creativity, control and imagination.