Flyaway is a strange beast of a book. It’s a Gothic fairytale set ostensibly somewhere between the Coral Sea and the Indian Ocean, in a bush district, but Kathleen Jennings’ debut novel could really be located in just about any small Australian town, in any dusty outpost where memory “seeped and frayed … where ghosts stood silent by fenceposts”. Bettina Scott is the unreliable narrator at its core, a young woman who, unlike her mother, is graceless and unlovely; there are intimations that tempestuousness and insolence also reside closely beneath her surface.
The two women are eerily buttoned-up prim, and keep close within the tree-ringed boundaries of home until one day the word “MONSTERS” is scrawled across their white fence and then a letter arrives, accusing Bettina of cowardice. These portentous events act as a catalyst for her to go on a squabbling road trip with two quasi-friends to find the truth about the disappearance of her father and brothers.
Bettina’s story is interwoven with metafictional tales that take on typical fantasy tropes: maleficent shapeshifting creatures, haunted woods, enchanted potions and ill-gotten wishes. Permeating the novel is a sense of dread that’s amplified by the staccato rhythm in Jennings’ prose, which is poetic in its compression and its use of similes and metaphors: “geraniums hot as matches”, the “troll-rattle of an old timber bridge”,“trees like lanterns, like candles, ghosts and bones”.
The effect of reading Flyaway is disorienting: the narrative moves uneasily between reality and supernatural elements, and the stories-within-a-story are not always cohesive with the main plot thread. Jennings writes lyrically about the natural environment in both its tamed and wild ways; there are trees that bleed resin like rubies, and lemons the size of ox hearts, for instance. She’s also good at evoking creepiness in this folkloric puzzle of a book. However, none of her characters seem fully fleshed out – neither Bettina nor the secondary protagonists. They are like ciphers, fragments of a disturbed dream, and there is a sense of the work striving too hard to adhere to the realm of the magic and the mysterious. The novel’s title is therefore apposite: Flyaway is a wispy book that’s hard to pin down in terms of meaning and resolution.
Picador, 192pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 15, 2020 as "Kathleen Jennings, Flyaway".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.